SAN DIEGO — The hit came on their third play.
Receiver Cecil Shorts ran a little square-in and Chargers safety Jahleel Addae went low, the way the new rules have given defensive backs the right to knee-cap receivers like loan sharks. Aim high, and they face a penalty for a blow to a defenseless pass catcher and a hefty fine.
Shorts somehow made the catch for 14 yards, but the Bucs believe he probably tore every ligament and dislocated his right knee.
As trainers attended to him, immobilizing his leg, the entire Bucs team left the bench to greet him.
Shorts, in unthinkable pain, pumped his fists and said, "C'mon, let's go!'
"I don't know how he was conscious after that," said tight end Cameron Brate. "That was one of the most gruesome hits I've ever seen."
Two plays earlier, tight end Luke Stocker reinjured his ankle and was lost for the game. Later in the first half, receiver Adam Humphries was struck in the helmet while hanging on to a pass. He went into the league's concussion protocol and did not return.
And so it went. The Bucs' 28-21 win Sunday over the Chargers was a testament to their resiliency. All the tape and ice and braces and the gristle held the team together for the fourth straight week and left another opponent hurting.
The Bucs overcame a 14-7 deficit and an anemic rushing attack to improve to 7-5 and own a share of the NFC South lead with Atlanta. If the playoffs started today, Tampa Bay would be the No. 2 wild card.
"We just did a good job of hanging in there," coach Dirk Koetter said. "It's a team game and that's what makes it great. You've got 53 guys, 46 that are active on game day, and you've got to go in there and play. Proud of (safety) Keith Tandy and (receiver) Freddie (Martino). As coaches, sometimes we get nervous about putting guys in.
"I just think we're one of those teams that's starting to believe. It's crazy what confidence can do when you start making plays, it seems to build on it."
The game, played before a large contingent of Bucs fans who made the trip to Qualcomm Stadium, featured six lead changes and huge plays from backups and rookies.
Rookie Vernon Hargreaves tipped a pass that linebacker Lavonte David returned 15 yards for a touchdown to give the Bucs a 17-14 lead in the third quarter. Jameis Winston, who passed for 280 yards and a touchdown to Brate, completed throws to nine different receivers. Seldom-used Martino had four catches for 56 yards.
Tandy, starting for the injured Chris Conte, leaped high and intercepted a pass to Chargers receiver Dontrelle Inman in the end zone. Jacquizz Rodgers, who missed four games, rushed three times for a first time to salt the game away.
So what has inspired the Bucs to post a 5-1 road record?
"Shorts went down, Humph went down, (tight end) Brandon Myers did an awesome job," Brate said. "That's the kind of team we have.''
After the game, receiver Russell Shepard yelled on the way to the locker room, "They have to respect us now. We're in it!"
Winston pumped the brakes on the Bucs' euphoria.
"It feels great, but we have not arrived," Winston said. "We're playing one game at time. We have a tough Saints opponent next week, and we have to take advantage of that opportunity. We cannot stop now. We have to keep climbing, and I believe we will because we're playing so well right now, and I think this win was inspiring."