By Joe Messineo
With just five weeks remaining in the regular season, the Chargers and Buccaneers are both trying to remain relevant in the playoff race as they face off this Sunday at Raymond James Stadium. The Chargers (5-6) are two games behind the Dolphins for the sixth and final spot in the AFC, while the Bucs (6-5) are half a game behind the Redskins for the last spot in the NFC, but they are also just a game behind the Falcons in the NFC South. There are a few key matchups that will determine if Tampa Bay can run their win streak to four games or if the Chargers can win, despite traveling across the country to play.
Philip Rivers vs. Bucs Defense
With his team struggling to run the ball against the Texans, Rivers took to the air, throwing for over 240 yards and three touchdowns as the Chargers handed Houston their first home loss. While the Bucs are only 18th against the pass, allowing 253 yards per game, in their win over Seattle, they shut down Russell Wilson who had been averaging over 17 yards per completion on throws over 15 yards. The Bucs held him to 27 percent on those throws and intercepted him twice.
Casey Hayward vs. Mike Evans
Because he isn’t flashy or part of a secondary with a cool nickname, most people probably don’t know that Hayward leads the NFL in interceptions with six. After struggling in Green Bay last season, Hayward signed with the Chargers and is having a Pro Bowl worthy season. Hayward will probably see a lot of Evans who just became the fourth player in NFL history to start his career with three straight 1,000 yard seasons. Evans is by far the Bucs’ leading receiver with 73 receptions for 1,020 yards and 10 touchdowns. He has been a favorite target of Jameis Winston when he moves outside the pocket too. Evans has caught 20 passes and seven touchdowns when Winston scrambles.
The Buccaneers are coming off what some have called their best defensive performance of the season after beating Seattle 14-5. The defense really came together as a unit to support teammate Alterraun Verner, whose father died of a heart attack two days before the game. Verner had an interception during the game and the ability to carry that chemistry and emotion into this game could have a big impact on the outcome.
Backs Against the Wall Mentality
Despite their win in Houston, the Chargers remain in last place in the AFC West and many prognosticators expect them to fade down the stretch and finish 7-9. San Diego proved doubters wrong by beating the Texans and they will need to continue doing so as they probably need to win out to have a shot at making the playoffs.