KICKOFF: Sunday, 4:15 ET
TV: FOX, Thom Brennaman, J.C. Pearson; DirecTV, 716
SERIES: 32nd meeting. Bucs leads the all-time series 12-10 and have won six of the last eight meetings with the Falcons. Earlier this year in the Georgia Dome, the Falcons won 24-14.
2004 RANKINGS: Bucs: offense 23rd (28th rush, 18th pass); defense 3rd (22nd rush, 1st pass). Chargers: offense 10th (5th rush, 16th pass); defense 11th (2nd rush, 27th pass)
KEYS TO THE GAME: With the Chargers allowing just 78.7 rushing yards per game, it's easy for opponents to abandon the run early. But the Bucs need to stick with RB Michael Pittman and attempt to control the clock. Then QB Brian Griese can go after the Chargers' secondary, where CB Drayton Florence will be making just his second career start. The Bucs' offense has been increasingly effective with WR Joey Galloway healthy and able to stretch the field. But it won't matter much if Tampa Bay's defense, allowing 123.3 rushing yards per game, can't contain Chargers RB LaDainian Tomlinson. The Bucs can't afford to commit extra defenders toward stopping Tomlinson because Chargers TE Antonio Gates can exploit the middle of the field, where Tampa Bay has already been hurt by quality tight ends in previous games.
FAST FACTS: Bucs: DL DeWayne White has at least half a sack in six games since moving to tackle. ... WR Michael Clayton needs five receptions to pass FB Mike Alstott's team rookie record of 65 set in 1996. Chargers: RB LaDainian Tomlinson has scored a touchdown in nine consecutive games to tie the franchise record held by Lance Alworth and Natrone Means. ... Have won their past five home games by an average of 18.2 points.
PREDICTION: Bucs 17-16
INSIDE THE CAMPS:
Two things wide receiver Keenan McCardell embraces: single coverage and someone with a pen and notebook.
But while McCardell should see some of the first this Sunday when facing the Buccaneers, he isn't talking to the media leading up to the game.
The outgoing McCardell has shut it down this week. After blasting the Bucs for not giving him a new contract -- which cost him about $800,000 in fines and lost salary -- McCardell has zipped his lips.
The Chargers are undefeated since McCardell came over in an October trade, winning six straight in their seven-game streak.
So it's up to coach Marty Schottenheimer to talk about McCardell.
"Like several of these other veteran players that we have brought in here over this season, he is very mature and very professional," said Schottenheimer, who has seen McCardell catch 28 passes for 363 yards and a score. "He understands what you have to do to be able to develop your skills and prepare during the course of the week.
McCardell's impact can't be measure just by his statistics.
"He has afforded us the opportunity to have more than one or two playmakers -- he, along with Eric Parker, (Antonio) Gates and LaDainian Tomlinson," Schottenheimer said. "I mean those guys have really done a terrific job for us."
The Bucs cannot afford another loss in order to avoid their first back-to-back, non-winning seasons since '94-'95.
"It's significant, but the most important thing is to get into the Super Bowl tournament and win it," coach Jon Gruden said. "That's the only significance. After that, what really matters? We're not playing for a BCS game or a bowl bid. Hell, we want to get into the playoffs, then win all the playoff games and win the Super Bowl. That's it."
Any difference between 8-8 and 9-7 in Gruden's mind?
"Don't know the difference," he said.
There is reason for the Bucs to be optimistic. In eight of the past 10 seasons, at least one NFL team with a 6-6 record or lower at this point in the season has advanced to the playoffs, including the Packers last year. Since 1990, three teams with 5-7 records made the playoffs - the '90 Saints, '95 Chargers and '96 Jaguars.
The Bucs, who started 0-4, have won five of the past eight games. The Panthers, who were 1-7, have won four straight.
"We were 1-5 sitting in St. Louis. We're playing much better football. We feel like we squandered some games, but we've been in every game, we've been in position to win and last week was arguably our best performance, collectively, of the season."
Donnie Edwards continues to play well. He has 58 tackles in his last five games, which includes a career-high 20 against the Broncos last week.
Jamar Fletcher, who never fit in in Miami, is playing well of late. With the injury to Sammy Davis, Fletcher has been elevated to the nickel role and has held up well.
Tim Dwight (toe) didn't work. That usually isn't big a deal, but it sounds like Dwight is iffy for Sunday. A clue was Robb Butler fielding kickoffs after practice.
Jesse Chatman (toe) didn't practice on Thursday or Friday, but he should play this weekend.
Hanik Milligan (hamstring) sounds as if he will be a game-time decision. He's the team's leading special teams tackler but missed Friday's workout.
Sammy Davis (leg) didn't work and will miss the game. He's replaced by Drayton Florence.
Brian Griese has posted a 95.0-plus passer rating in six of eight games.
Michael Clayton leads NFL rookie receivers with 61 catches for 843 yards.
Joey Galloway averages 17.6 yards per catch in the past 21 games.
Dexter Jackson, who suffered a pulled hamstring on the opening kickoff against Atlanta, was limited in practice Thursday. Jackson is probable for Sunday's game at San Diego. "This is my training camp," Jackson said.
Jermaine Phillips (broken forearm) practiced on Thursday but still is listed as doubtful for Sunday's game at San Diego. Phillips is not expected to play, but could be back in the lineup next week versus New Orleans.
Michael Pittman (knee) was limited in practice Thursday but is probable for Sunday's game at San Diego.
Bucs at Chargers pre-game
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