The NFL's highest-rated passer threw for 287 yards and four touchdowns Sunday, helping the Chargers beat Tampa Bay 41-24 to keep their playoff hopes alive and deal a crushing blow to the Buccaneers' chances.
After their third straight win in what amounted to elimination games for a team that began the season with expectations of reaching the Super Bowl, San Diego (7-8) got needed help when Buffalo beat Denver 30-23. The Broncos and Chargers meet next week in San Diego in a showdown for the division title.
"I can't say enough about our guys in terms of the way they've handled the last month. The way they prepared, they way they competed," coach Norv Turner said.
The Chargers have won 13 consecutive December games, including seven on the road, since a loss at Kansas City on Dec. 24, 2005.
"I think we are playing like a playoff team. ... Hopefully it's not too late," said running back LaDainian Tomlinson, who rushed for 90 yards to join Barry Sanders and Curtis Martin as the only players in NFL history to run for 1,000 in each of their first eight seasons.
Tampa Bay (9-6), which lost its first home game and has dropped three straight, could have clinched at least an NFC wild-card spot with a win and some help. Instead, the Bucs' day ended with Jeff Garcia's face bloodied and teammates hoping other contenders falter, too.
"We've let ourselves down," said Garcia, sporting a cut on the bridge of his nose.
"When you're 9-3 at one point and you're a couple of wins away from the playoffs, and now we're fighting just to get in ... it's tough looking at it," Bucs running back Warrick Dunn added.
Rivers threw TD passes of 15 and 5 yards to Antonio Gates, the latter giving the Chargers the lead for good on the first play of the fourth quarter. Darren Sproles turned a screen pass into a 32-yard touchdown before Antoine Cason returned one of San Diego's two fourth-quarter interceptions 59 yards for a score that made it 41-24 with three minutes left.
Garcia, who started after sitting out last week with a strained right calf, kept the Bucs in the game by running for a third-quarter touchdown and lofting a 71-yard TD pass to Antonio Bryant for a 24-20 lead.
But it was all San Diego after that, and Rivers had a lot to do with it.
"That's the San Diego Chargers that we anticipated on being at the beginning of the year," Gates said. "Tampa Bay, with all due respect, there was nothing they could do about it once we had the rhythm like we had today."
The Chargers moved the ball almost at will much of the day, scoring on three straight possessions to build an early 17-7 lead. Tampa Bay cut into it by driving into San Diego territory and settling for Matt Bryant's 49-yard field with 17 seconds left in the half.
But Turner wasn't content with a seven-point advantage. After Sproles returned the ensuing kickoff to the Chargers 36, Rivers threw 25 yards to Vincent Jackson to set up the long field goal that Kaeding nailed with room to spare.
Jackson finished with seven receptions for 111 yards and went over 1,000 yards in a season for the first time in his career for San Diego.
Tampa Bay's defense was picked apart for the second time in three weeks. After giving up 474 yards rushing in road losses to Carolina and Atlanta, the unit rarely pressured Rivers, who was only sacked once while completing 21 of 31 passes with no interceptions.
"We just never really solved them," Bucs coach Jon Gruden said. "Obviously, it hurts."
Gates' TD receptions gave him eight this season and 51 for his career. He reached 50 in his 92nd game, fastest in league history for a tight end. Jerry Smith was the previous fastest, doing it in 100 games.
Garcia scored on a 7-yard run, finishing a 78-yard drive that take up the first half of the third quarter and trimmed San Diego's lead to 20-17. He did a nice job of rolling to his right to avoid pressure and finding Bryant all alone on the TD that put the Bucs up 24-20.
"It's been very disappointing over the past three weeks to play the way we have and not finish games off," Garcia said.
Bryant had six catches for 127 yards, his sixth 100-yard game of the year. ... Tomlinson boosted his season rushing total to 1,014 yards. ... Rookie Pro Bowl selection Clifton Smith returned a kickoff 72 yards to set up Tampa Bay's first TD.
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