SAN DIEGO — The Bucs got lots of help earlier in the day.
Division rivals Atlanta and New Orleans both lost. That was key, especially Atlanta, which is in first place, but still well within the Bucs' reach.
And the Bucs took advantage of it with a strange 28-21 victory over the Chargers.
It was a weird game, and I'm still not quite sure how Tampa Bay won. But they now sit at 7-5 and are in great shape with a big game at home next week against the Saints.
Here are some immediate thoughts following Sunday's odd, but good, victory.
• Rough start for the Bucs and, in particular, defensive back Alterraun Verner. A week after his huge game following the sudden of his father, Verner was victimized on the Chargers' first drive. He bit on a move by Chargers receiver Dontrelle Inman, slipped to the ground and was toasted for a 45-yard touchdown. It was a punch-in-the-mouth drive to start the game.
• Here's what you have to love about Bucs quarterback Jameis Winston. On Tampa Bay's second drive of the game, Winston was picked off by San Diego's Casey Hayward. Awful throw. He was trying to connect with Mike Evans. Okay, so that's not the part you love. In fact, that's the part that occasionally drives Bucs fans bonkers. It's what happened next that gets folks so excited about Winston. On the following series, he drove the Bucs down the field and the key play was him finding a small window to hit Evans for a 22-yard gain. It was one of the plays when he runs around while under pressure, then it starts to look like he's going to run the ball before stopping and slinging a ball to a heavily-covered Evans. Shortly after that huge 22-yard play, the Bucs scored on a 2-yard Doug Martin run. Just another example of how Winston put a bad play behind him and led the Bucs to a scoring drive.
• The Bucs defensive line had some major issues against San Diego's massive offensive line. Pushed around is a kind way to put it. Manhandled is a more accurate description.
• Big gut-check call of the game came late in the first half, Bucs trailing, 14-7, and facing 4th-and-1 at the 50-yard line. Bucs coach Dirk Koetter decided to go for it. I would have punted, but maybe that (and, like, 249 other reasons) are why I work for a newspaper and Koetter is a professional football coach. Anyway, Koetter's move paid off, the Bucs got the first down. It paid off until ...
• Robert Aguayo officially went back into his funk. The Bucs drove into the red zone and looked ready to punch in a touchdown until Winston took a costly 12-yard sack. The Bucs then purposefully ran the ball to get the ball closer for Aguayo. But the embattled Bucs kicker missed a 31-yard attempt. Come on: 31 yards. That's a chip shot for a professional. It was a real downer going into the half. And what a weird half it was. The Bucs didn't look all that sharp, and yet, because of Aguayo's miss, it felt like they should have been closer than down 14-7.
• Aguayo did respond with a 27-yard FG on the first drive of the second half to cut San Diego's lead to 14-10. And he made a 35-yarder early in the fourth to cut another San Diego lead to 21-20. But, still, moving forward, you wonder about how much confidence the Bucs have in Aguayo when the game — and a possible playoff spot — is on the line.
• Injuries really took a big bite out of the Bucs on Sunday. First, tight end Luke Stocker was lost with an ankle injury. But then came two really tough blows. First, receiver Cecil Shorts had to be carted off the field with a knee injury after he was tackled low (but clean) by San Diego's Jahleel Addae. Then, later, Adam Humphries left with a concussion when he took a blow to the head after a catch.
• Huge thumbs up to Vernon Hargreaves, who tipped a ball that Lavonte David intercepted and returned 14 yards for a touchdown to give Tampa Bay a 17-14 lead with 4:25 left in the third quarter.
• Winston didn't have his best game of the year, but he was special when he needed to be. He relied heavily on tight end Cameron Brate and, of course, Mike Evans. And Freddie Martino had a nice day being pressed into duty.
• Great defensive play by Keith Tandy picking off Philip Rivers to save the game. Biggest play of his season. By far.