With a rookie sensation at running back and a fourth-year quarterback who's finally coming into his own, the surprising Tampa Bay Buccaneers are starting to look like a playoff team.
The San Diego Chargers have the same record and are also just outside the playoff picture, but they haven't looked much like a contender lately.
The surging Buccaneers try to win for the fourth time in five games Sunday when they host the underachieving Chargers.
All but counted out after a 1-3 start, Tampa Bay (4-4) has turned things around the past four weeks behind the explosive play of Doug Martin and Josh Freeman to close within one-half game of a playoff spot.
Martin rushed for a franchise-record 251 yards and four touchdowns in last Sunday's 42-32 win at Oakland. The 2012 first-round pick out of Boise State finished 45 yards shy of tying Adrian Peterson's single game record, and became the first back since at least 1940 to score on three TD runs of at least 45 yards in one game.
"It's surreal right now," said Martin, who ranks second in the NFL with 99.3 run yards per game and has amassed 608 scrimmage yards and seven TDs in the last three weeks. "I'm just doing my job out there. I'm honored.'
He'll be facing a San Diego team that ranks fourth against the run at 87.4 yards per game, but has allowed an average of 123.0 in its last two contests.
"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, who threw for 247 yards and two TDs against Oakland, has also played a major role in Tampa Bay's surge, averaging 314.3 yards with 11 touchdowns and one interception in his last four games. As a team, the Bucs are averaging 36.0 points and 476.8 yards in those contests.
"They've become a very explosive offense," San Diego coach Norv Turner said. "They have big-play players at all positions."
Vincent Jackson, who spent his first seven seasons with the Chargers before signing with Tampa Bay in March, has given Freeman a go-to target in the passing game, and ranks third in the NFC with 88.8 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."
The Chargers (4-4) haven't been nearly as impressive offensively lately, except for when they're facing one-win Kansas City.
San Diego hasn't played since last Thursday's 31-13 win over the Chiefs, snapping a three-game skid. The Chargers' only two victories in their last six games have come over Kansas City, and they're averaging 14.3 points in those defeats.
Despite their struggles, the Chargers are one-game out of a wild-card spot, and are hoping to pull together to make the playoffs and keep Turner off the hot seat.
"We want to win for him every week,' 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 has 12 touchdowns to 10 interceptions, but is coming off one of his best performances of the season. He completed 18 of 20 passes for 220 yards with two touchdowns and one pick against Kansas City. It was the sixth time in NFL history a quarterback had completed 90 percent or more of his passes.
The Chargers have won eight of their last 10 games in which Rivers has thrown fewer than two interceptions. If he can avoid throwing picks, Rivers has a chance to put up some big numbers Sunday. While the Buccaneers are third in the NFL with 13 interceptions, they're also allowing a league-high 321.1 passing yards per game.
Tampa Bay has enjoyed far greater success against the run, allowing an average of 77.3 yards per game - best in the NFL. San Diego's Ryan Mathews has averaged 78.7 rushing yards with no touchdowns in his last three starts.
The Chargers are 8-1 all-time against the Buccaneers, including a 5-0 mark in Tampa. In the last meeting in 2008, Rivers threw for 287 yards and four touchdowns in leading San Diego to a 41-24 victory.
The Associated Press News Service
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