Super-charged San Diego combo
Gates swung open and Rivers rolled — and the result was a second-quarter touchdown for the Chargers.
With the score 7-7, San Diego had driven from its 11 to the Bucs 15 but faced a third and 11.
That's when Pro Bowl tight end Antonio Gates made his move. As Philip Rivers curled to his left, buying time, he spotted the 6-foot-4, 260-pounder cutting across the back of the end zone to the left side. The league's top-rated quarterback threaded a perfectly thrown pass high in the corner, and Gates made the grab — ahead of cornerback Ronde Barber's last-ditch attempt to bat the ball away.
With the catch, Gates became the quickest tight end in NFL history to reach 50 touchdowns. His 92 games (over six seasons) are eight fewer than the Redskins' Jerry Smith.
"Obviously, Philip has been playing at a very high level, and he got out of the pocket and tried to make something happen," Gates said. "You couldn't ask for a more perfect throw. He threw it where only I could get it or it was going to go out of bounds. And I was able to come up with the catch."
Rivers and Gates clicked again on the first play of the fourth quarter after Tampa Bay had taken a 24-20 lead. On third and goal from the Bucs 5, Rivers rolled to his right and found his big tight end coming open in the right corner of the end zone. Gates beat cornerback Phillip Buchanon for career touchdown No. 51, putting San Diego back on top to stay.
"Again, (Rivers) made a great play out of the pocket," Gates said. "This was just another glimpse of how well he's been playing throughout the season. I was just trying to give him a target. He hit me in the back corner, and I was able to make the play."
Another special return
Once again, rookie return specialist Clifton Smith showed the spark that is sending him to Hawaii for the Pro Bowl. Moments after the Chargers jumped to a 7-0 lead, No. 22 fielded the kickoff deftly despite the bad hop it took at the last second that threw him off balance.
Smith regained his bearings without missing a beat, darted through an opening and was off to the races for what looked like his second kickoff return touchdown this season. Cletis Gordon closed the gap inside the Chargers 20, slowing Smith enough for Eric Weddle to make the tackle at the 11. Smith's 72-yard return, the fifth longest in Bucs history, set up B.J. Askew's 1-yard touchdown run.
"I took the bad hop and slipped but got back up. And my teammates made some excellent blocks and just sprung me loose," said Smith, who has 14 kickoff returns of 25 yards or longer in only eight games this season. "My main thought was just to pick the ball up and protect it then get what I could get."
A dash that dashed the final chance
The Bucs still had a glimmer of hope midway through the fourth quarter. The Chargers had just taken a 34-24 lead on backup tailback Darren Sproles' 32-yard catch-and-run.
Jeff Garcia moved the offense from the Tampa Bay 23 to the San Diego 48. Facing third and 4 with 3:13 left, he sent a short pass on the right side to Ike Hilliard. The ball, however, glanced off Hilliard when cornerback Quentin Jammer made contact, deflecting it into the arms of rookie cornerback Antoine Cason. Cason broke down the left sideline and raced 59 yards for the touchdown.
"I looked left to soften the defense a little bit, and I came back and really didn't see the defender who was stacked right behind Ike," Garcia said. "I just tried to give Ike a chance to make a play, and the guy did a good job of getting his arm around and deflecting the football."
Said Cason: "(Jammer) made a great play. I was hoping for the tip, and it happened. I just grabbed it and said, 'I know what to do with this now.' "