4:05 PM ET, October 9, 2011
Candlestick Park, San Francisco, CA
Although they've looked sluggish at times and haven't put together a convincing victory, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers are tied for first in the NFC South.
The San Francisco 49ers find themselves in a similar position -- atop their division thanks to several gritty wins.
In a matchup between surprising division leaders, the Buccaneers look to win a fourth straight game Sunday when they visit a 49ers team hoping to build on a thrilling comeback which capped a successful week-long trip.
Tampa Bay (3-1) travels to San Francisco in a short week after beating Indianapolis 24-17 on Monday night to keep pace with New Orleans in the South. The Buccaneers had some trouble with the winless Colts, trailing 10-0 in the second quarter, and didn't take their first lead until LeGarrette Blount capped the scoring with a 35-yard TD run with 3:15 remaining.
"We just showed what this team is," cornerback Ronde Barber said. "It's a very resilient football team."
It's also a bit of a sloppy team. The Bucs managed to overcome touchdown passes of 87 and 59 yards, as well as 14 penalties for 106 yards.
"It really wasn't pretty the whole time, but that's us," said Josh Freeman, who threw for a season-best 287 yards with a passing and rushing TD.
Winning ugly has been common for Tampa Bay. After rallying from a 10-point, fourth-quarter deficit to beat winless Minnesota 24-20 in Week 2, the Bucs nearly blew a 13-point, fourth-quarter lead in a 16-13 win over Atlanta on Sept. 25.
"Survive and advance. That's what we're after," coach Raheem Morris said. "The fact is you're 3-1. And you're very excited about it. Got a short week and we're going to San Francisco."
Tampa Bay, trying to open 4-1 for the first time since 2005, won at Candlestick Park 21-0 last November. Freeman passed for two touchdowns as the Bucs snapped an eight-game losing streak in San Francisco and won for just the second time in 13 games there.
Duplicating that performance likely won't be easy.
An injured Alex Smith missed that game as the 49ers were held to 189 total yards. San Francisco opened last season with five straight losses, but Smith now has the team in position to start 4-1 for the first time since 2002 -- the last time it won the NFC West.
The 49ers (3-1) have a two-game lead atop the division following last Sunday's stunning 24-23 comeback win in Philadelphia. Smith completed 13 of 17 passes for 201 yards and two touchdowns in the second half as San Francisco rallied from a 23-3 third-quarter deficit.
"It's a great character builder for a young team," first-year coach Jim Harbaugh said. "To really know and trust and believe that they can and will do well (and) believe that they are good enough to do well -- that's big. That's the way we wanted them to play, and that's the way they played."
The win came after Harbaugh decided to have his team spend a week in Ohio following a 13-8 comeback victory at Cincinnati on Sept. 25.
"We're just following, believing, and great things are happening," Frank Gore said. "As long as we just keep following our leader and keep believing in our leader, we'll be fine."
Gore, who had been bothered by a sprained right ankle and averaged 2.5 yards per carry in the first three games, got on track against the Eagles with a season-best 127 yards on 15 carries.
The 49ers are 28th in the league in total offense at 292.0 yards per game but should find success if they continue to get big games from the two-time Pro Bowl running back. Since the start of the 2007 season, San Francisco is 11-4 when Gore reaches the 100-yard mark and 14-29 when he doesn't.
He'll be facing a Tampa Bay defense that is 11th against the run, allowing an average of 101.0 yards. The Bucs limited Gore to 23 yards on 12 attempts last year.
The 49ers' run defense is coming off a superb showing, holding Philadelphia's LeSean McCoy, the NFC's leading rusher through the first three weeks, to 18 yards on nine carries.
It will now try to slow down Blount, who ran for a season-best 127 yards Monday and is third in the NFL in rushing over the last three weeks with 279.
More from ESPN.com
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Buccaneers-49ers: 10 observations
After breaking down film of both teams, Scouts Inc. offers 10 things to watch in this week's Buccaneers-49ers matchup.
1. Extend the pocket: Josh Freeman is one of the bigger quarterbacks in the NFL at 6-foot-6 and 250 pounds, yet he has surprisingly quick and nimble feet that enable him to extend the pocket and make plays. He is a very accurate thrower on the move and he does a good job of keeping his eyes downfield after the play breaks down. Look for offensive coordinator Greg Olson to use a lot of rollouts and sliding pockets to make it more difficult for the defense to know where to target its rush.
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|Avg Points Allowed||25.0||15.6|
Team Averages & NFL Ranks
|TEAM OFFENSE||TEAM||PER GAME AVERAGE|
|TEAM DEFENSE||TEAM||PER GAME AVERAGE|
|Pass Yds Allowed||TB|
|Rush Yds Allowed||TB|
Head to Head Matchups (Since 2001)
|San Francisco leads 4-3|
|Nov 21, 2010||TB 21, @SF 0|
|Dec 23, 2007||TB 19, @SF 21|
|Oct 30, 2005||TB 10, @SF 15|
|Nov 21, 2004||TB 35, SF 3|
|Oct 19, 2003||TB 7, @SF 24|
|Jan 12, 2003||TB 31, SF 6|