Published November 09, 2012
| Sports Network
It's a pretty dramatic reversal from a few months back.
Entering the 2012 season, the San Diego Chargers -- in spite of a decade's worth of falling short of championships -- were still considered a legitimate source of Roman numeral chatter.
Meanwhile, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers -- complete with a rookie coach trying to remove all traces of last year's Raheem Morris nosedive -- were in stage one of rebuilding mode.
But just halfway through the latest 16-game grind, a new storyline has emerged for a pair of 4-4s.
With wunderkind Doug Martin at running back and quarterback Josh Freeman seemingly taking the strides other members of his draft class still haven't managed, it's the Greg Schiano-led Bucs that are beginning to resemble a postseason possibility.
The San Diego Chargers, on the other hand, are looking like nearly anything but.
One of the two will take a step past .500 on Sunday afternoon, when they meet in Tampa at Raymond James Stadium.
Winners in three of four games after going 1-3 in the schedule's initial quarter, the Bucs moved within striking distance of the NFC's wild card discussion when Martin gashed the Oakland Raiders for 251 yards and four touchdowns in a 42-32 last week in Northern California.
A first-round pick out of Boise State, Martin got within four dozen yards of Adrian Peterson's single-game record (296) and became the first runner in 72 years to score on three dashes of at least 45 yards in the same game.
The 251 yards were a Buccaneers franchise record and boosted Martin's per-game yardage average to 99.3 yards -- second in the NFL. He's scored seven times and gained 608 yards from scrimmage in the last three weeks.
"It's surreal right now," he said. "I'm just doing my job out there. I'm honored."
The Chargers are among the league's elite -- in fact, they're fourth -- in stopping the run (87.4 yards per game), but, ominously, they've given up 246 yards in the last two weeks.
"The way Doug is breaking tackles and having that top-end speed to make people miss and outrun people to the end zone, it's exceptional," Freeman said. "It's all about preparation with him."
Freeman threw for 247 yards and two TDs as a sidekick to Martin against Oakland. He's averaged 314.3 yards and thrown 11 scoring passes with a single interception in the last four games, which have seen Tampa Bay produce at a rate of 36 points and 476.8 yards per week while winning three times.
"They've become a very explosive offense," San Diego coach Norv Turner said. "They have big-play players at all positions."
Vincent Jackson spent six full seasons with the Chargers before signing with Tampa Bay in March. He's been Freeman's new favorite target and is third in the conference with 88.8 receiving yards per game.
"We have a lot of different weapons," Jackson said. "The coaches do a great job of just giving teams different looks, spreading the ball around. It's fun to play in an offense like this that can be very explosive."
It's the sort of adjective that's not been used in San Diego lately.
The Chargers scored 31 points in a rout of hapless Kansas City in last week's Thursday game, snapping a three-game losing streak. They're just 2-4 after a 2-0 start, with both wins coming against the Chiefs and a paltry 14.3-point scoring average emerging from the losses.
It's the sort of production -- or lack of it -- that's got coach Norv Turner on the hot seat yet again. In past years, it's been for not getting it done in the playoffs. This year, it may be for not reaching them.
"We want to win for him every week," quarterback Philip Rivers said. "You play for a lot of things, but we play for our coach. I think that has been evident over the years when we have struggled."
Rivers completed 90 percent of his passes -- 18-of-20 -- for 220 yards, two scores and an interception in downing the Chiefs, becoming the sixth QB in league history to connect at that lofty percentage in a game with that many throws. For the season, he's got 12 touchdowns and 10 interceptions.
When he throws less than two INTs in a game, the Chargers generally win -- they're 8-2 in the last 10 games with one or none. Tampa Bay has picked off 13 passes in eight games, but they've also been roasted for 321.1 pass yards per game, worst in the 32-team league.
Against the run, the Bucs have allowed 77.3 yards per contest -- best in the league. Toward that end, San Diego's Ryan Mathews hasn't scored in his last three games, but he's averaged 78.7 yards per.
Rivers threw for 287 yards and four scores to down Tampa Bay, 41-24, when the teams last met four years ago. The Chargers lead the all-time series, 8-1, and haven't lost in five times in Florida.
Turner is 4-5 in his career against the Buccaneers.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
Jackson was a consistent commodity in six-plus seasons with the Chargers, averaging between 15 and 19 yards per catch and eclipsing the 1,000-yard mark for a season three times.
He's off to an even more impressive start in year one with the Buccaneers and will face his ex-mates for the first time with 31 catches, six touchdowns and a glittering 22.9-yard average through his initial eight games in Tampa Bay.
San Diego, which is 18th in the league against the pass -- 237.8 yards per game with a 63.7 percent opposition completion rate -- will have its hands full dealing with Jackson and teammate Mike Williams (29 catches, 17.4-yard average), while also keeping an eye on Martin, who shredded Oakland last week.
At the season's outset, this was probably a no-brainer pick for the Chargers in spite of the venue. But with a San Diego team doing its typical Norv Turner-led tease and a Bucs unit seemingly finding itself under Greg Schiano, the prognostication rules may be changing. Though they have more talent top to bottom, the Chargers simply haven't been consistent enough to be a slam-dunk pick, especially coming from California to Florida.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Buccaneers 24, Chargers 23