The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have played much of their best football on the road this season, and seek to extend their unlikely win streak to four games Sunday as they travel to face the San Diego Chargers.
That means trying to contain the NFL's No. 4 scoring offense and No. 5 passing game, led by quarterback Philip Rivers, who has 23 touchdowns despite missing some of his top targets this year.
"What I see on film is a top-flight NFL quarterback," Bucs coach Dirk Koetter said. "This guy's a heck of a player, very accurate, great anticipation, full command of their system, gets them in the right play, a lot of calls at the line of scrimmage, incredible touch, tough as nails. That guy's a really good player."
Tampa Bay (6-5) is still alive for the postseason, one game back of NFC South-leading Atlanta and a half-game behind Washington for the NFC's second wild card. San Diego (5-6) is in a tougher position, stuck at the bottom of the AFC West -- perhaps the best division in football -- and two games behind the AFC's last wild card.
The Chargers could easily be taken as being better than their record -- they've led in all six of their losses, and in the second half of five of them. They led the Chiefs 21-3 at one point, led the Saints by 13 with five minutes to play, but find themselves as the worst second-half defense in the NFL, giving up 16 points per game.
"The record is what it is. You can't do anything about it," San Diego head coach Mike McCoy said. "There's some games there that you wish you would've made a play or two here and there or somewhere during the game, so you didn't put yourself in that opportunity. So, you can't worry about that now and that's one thing I think our players and coaches have done a great job of.
"You go week-to-week in this business and you have a short memory, so you move on to the next game, we either win or lose. A majority of our games, besides one, have all been decided by eight points or less, so it's a very competitive league and there's a great balance, so you've got to go out there and do what you can week-in and week-out and find a way to win the game."
The Bucs pulled off two straight upset wins, first at Kansas City and Sunday at home against Seattle as their defense continues a remarkable turnaround. After only two takeaways in the first four games of the season -- a 1/3 start for Tampa Bay -- the Bucs recorded 18 takeaways in their last seven, and have a 5-2 mark to show for it.
The Chiefs' Alex Smith had only three interceptions before the Bucs got a pick in the end zone two weeks ago and Seattle's Russell Wilson threw two all season before the Bucs intercepted him twice Sunday. So the prospect of facing a San Diego team that leads the NFL with 23 turnovers -- 12 interceptions by Rivers and 11 fumbles, tying for the NFL lead there as well -- seems exciting.
"Defensively speaking, knowing some of the guys on the staff there and how they coach, with the types of coaches they are, the success they've had at other places, with a lot of talented players," McCoy said. "Having played against (cornerback Brent) Grimes before in the past, the way he plays the game. A younger player in (cornerback Vernon) Hargreaves, a guy we watched and really liked coming out. (Lavonte) David at linebacker, they've got a lot of talented players. Up front, the way they've gotten after the quarterback, things like that. So, it's a talented football team."
The Bucs haven't played at Qualcomm Stadium in 12 years as they return to the site of their Super Bowl championship after the 2002 season, hoping for more of the same kind of defense that has gotten them to three straight wins, holding opponents to an NFL-low 10.7 points per game in that span.
"Success and confidence seem to go together," Koetter said. "It's funny how that works and our D's playing with a lot of confidence right now. But your confidence can be shaken quickly when you start watching San Diego's offense on tape because they've got weapons, they've got a quarterback, they move the ball on everybody."
Bucs face challenge in Chargers, Rivers