By Dave Thomas
A win was once again there for the taking on Sunday afternoon in Tampa Bay. Once again, the San Diego Chargers boarded their long flight home winless. After losses last month in New Orleans and Cleveland that very easily could and should have been W’s, the Chargers made just enough miscues to leave Florida Sunday with a 34-24 loss to the Buccaneers. As a result, San Diego (4-5) now sits two games behind Denver (6-3) in the AFC West race, with a trip to the Mile High City this coming Sunday.
While a blocked punt on Mike Scifries for a touchdown (Adam Heyward returned it for a 29-yard score in the second quarter) was ugly, things got even worse when the up-and-down QB Philip Rivers tossed perhaps the ugliest interception in the recent years he has worn number 17 for the Bolts. The play would result in an 83-yard touchdown the opposite way for Leonard Johnson, in essence putting San Diego and its hopes of winning the AFC West on life support.
For those who love to dissect the statistics, the Chargers had the upper-hand on their hosts for the day, outperforming the Bucs in total yards (426 to 279), first downs (23 to 12), and time of possession (36:41 to 23:19). Still, it was the pair of miscues that led to 14 points for Tampa Bay (5-4), who now suddenly seems like a wild card threat in the NFC playoff picture.
Rivers, who threw for 337 yards and three TDs, also put two interceptions in his stat corner, including the big one to Johnson which would have looked much better had the defender been wearing a white uniform and not dressed in red. Leonard took the gift, broke out of a lame tackling effort from lineman Jeromey Clary, and raced into the end zone to perhaps put a dagger in head coach Norv Turner’s tenure in San Diego.
With all that is riding on Sunday’s contest at Denver, can the Chargers make a dent in the division race, or are the Broncos a win away from unofficially being known as AFC West champs? After what Charger fans have seen in recent losses (New Orleans, Denver, Cleveland, Tampa Bay), there is not a whole heck of much to be optimistic about these days. Then again, maybe having their season on the line this coming Sunday in Denver will be just what the doctor ordered for this team.
Offense – As noted earlier, San Diego had the upside on the stats, yet it was not enough to get the job done. Still, why does reserve back Jackie Battle not get more carries? Battle had one touch and ripped off a 21-yard run, while Ryan Mathews struggled to get 54 yards on 17 carries. Yes, inferior offensive line play at time was again a factor, but you should not win the stats card by a significant margin and still lose by 10 points. That’s where Rivers comes in with his two interceptions, especially the one that resulted in the pick six for Tampa Bay. While many people in San Diego and elsewhere who follow the Bolts have been questioning whether or not Turner and general manager AJ Smith should return next season, is there any reason not to at least ponder the same with Rivers? Yes, his contract of more than $90 million is in essence strangling management from making a move, and backup Charlie Whitehurst is not the answer, but the continued inconsistent play under center has to end for this team to be legit. Lastly, nice game from wide receiver Danario Alexander with five catches, 134 yards receiving, and a score. Grade: C+
Defense – After running for a franchise record 251 yards and four TDs a week earlier in Oakland, Tampa Bay running back Doug Martin was held to 68 yards rushing on 19 carries Sunday. Meantime, Tampa Bay QB Josh Freeman finished with a passer rating of 137.5, which included two TDs. Other than a Donald Butler sack, the Chargers had minimal pressure at best on Freeman most of the afternoon. San Diego still lacks that big-time pass rusher who can put pressure on the quarterback, meaning many opponents can then try and often successfully exploit Chargers’ weak secondary. While there are a number of areas to look at with this team after the season, getting a qualified pass rusher should be high on the list. Grade: B-
Special Teams – Along with almost ending punter Mike Scifries’ life on that punt block, the special teams did nothing to shake up the game. While it is still crying over spilled milk, how much do you think the loss of Darren Sproles to the Saints a few seasons ago has impacted this team? With no credible threat to return kicks and punts, the Chargers more times than not are lucky to start at their 20-yard line or worse. Grade: C-
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Dave Thomas is a freelance writer covering all things Chargers. His work can be found on Examiner.com.