Bucs bring three-game winning streak into matchup with Bolts
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SAN DIEGO — The San Diego Chargers would like to think that, even at 5-6, they've got a chance to make the playoffs.
That's a tall task, considering they'd have to run the table, and they still have to play the top two teams in the AFC West, Oakland and Kansas City, although those games are in San Diego.
And here come the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (6-5), who have won three straight — including last week's 14-5 triumph against Seattle — and are sitting just outside the NFC's second wild-card spot.
The Chargers have won two of three and four of six, including last week's 21-13 victory at Houston.
Even if that victory saved the Chargers' season, they're still just five quarters removed from Philip Rivers' meltdown against Miami, in which he threw four fourth-quarter interceptions, including Kiko Alonso's game-winning pick-6.
"There is no room for error," Rivers said. "While there may be some, we can't count on any of that. We know we've got a tough road ahead, especially with where teams are in our division and really, teams in the conference. A lot of them ahead of us."
Here are some things to watch for when the Bucs visit the Chargers:
BUCS BALL SECURITY: One of the keys to Tampa Bay's surge has been Jameis Winston doing a better job of taking care of the football. Since throwing seven interceptions and losing two fumbles during a three-game losing streak that dropped the Bucs to 1-3, the first overall pick from last year's draft has thrown for 14 touchdowns. He's turned over the ball five times (three interceptions, two fumbles) during a stretch in which Tampa Bay has won five of seven to climb back into playoff contention. The second-year quarterback shrugs off questions about what's changed.
"I'm just sticking to my goal. It's simple, and that's getting better every day," Winston said. With 2,900 yards passing, 22 TDs and 11 interceptions, he's on pace to top 4,000 yards again and break the franchise record for TD passes in a season (27).
STINGY 'D: Tampa Bay has played better defensively since yielding 1,087 yards, including 857 passing, and allowing 73 points in losses to Oakland and Atlanta within a five-day span last month. A lot better. During the three-game winning streak the team carries into this week, opponents have managed but 10.7 points per game, the lowest mark in the NFL during that stretch.
The Seahawks were 1 of 11 on third downs last week, and the Bucs sacked Russell Wilson six times while forcing three turnovers. "They're playing with a lot more confidence ... and success breeds success," coach Dirk Koetter said. "You have a little success to back it up, and most places I've been, that tends to build on itself."
GATESY: For the first time in 77 games, Antonio Gates didn't have a target or a catch because the Texans focused on taking the Chargers' star tight end out of the game. "He definitely had an impact on the game," Rivers said. "I think he knows that. Obviously those guys worrying about him means everyone else is singled. ... I imagine he'll get his hands on the football this week."
Gates remains three touchdown catches short of breaking Tony Gonzalez's NFL record of 111 for a tight end.
MAGIC MIKE: Although neither side will comment, it's believed that the Chargers will extend the contract of coach Mike McCoy despite his overall 27-32 record — and the fact the Chargers could miss the playoffs for the third time in McCoy's four seasons and for the sixth time in seven seasons overall. The Chargers gave McCoy a one-year extension through 2017 after they finished 4-12 last year, with general manager Tom Telesco saying the organization "has a belief in Mike, and a confidence in him." McCoy is known for his conservative approach and clock-management issues.
WHAT'S GOING ON?: This could be the Chargers' third-to-last game in San Diego. Or it might not be. After a ballot measure for a new stadium was soundly defeated on Nov. 8, team chairman Dean Spanos said via statement he wouldn't announce a decision about the team's future until after the season. There have been reports, based on unidentified sources, that the Chargers could play the next two seasons at the StubHub! Center in Carson and then join the Rams in a stadium set to open in Inglewood in 2019.
That seems a bit preposterous because the capacity at StubHub! is only 27,000., well below NFL requirements.
Spanos angered many fans last year with his failed attempt to join with the rival Oakland Raiders to build a stadium in Carson. Perhaps as a result, the Chargers have the second-lowest home attendance in the NFL, 55,819 at 70,000-seat Qualcomm Stadium, behind only the Raiders.
AP Sports Writer Fred Goodall in Tampa contributed.
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