TAMPA - Philip Rivers and the San Diego Chargers did everything they could to save their season.
The NFL's highest-rated passer threw for 287 yards and four touchdowns yesterday, helping the Chargers beat Tampa Bay, 41-24, to keep their playoff hopes alive and deal a crushing blow to the Buccaneers' chances.
Meanwhile, if the Bucs (9-6) beat Oakland next week at home, they eliminate the Eagles, who host Dallas in their season finale.
After their third straight win in what amounted to elimination games for a team that began the season with high expectations, San Diego (7-8) got help when Buffalo beat Denver. The Broncos and Chargers meet next week in San Diego in a showdown for the division title.
"I can't say enough about our guys in terms of the way they've handled the last month. The way they prepared, they way they competed," coach Norv Turner said.
The Chargers have won 13 consecutive December games, including seven on the road.
"I think we are playing like a playoff team . . . Hopefully it's not too late," said running back LaDainian Tomlinson, who rushed for 90 yards to join Barry Sanders and Curtis Martin as the only players in NFL history to run for 1,000 in each of their first eight seasons.
Tampa Bay (9-6), which lost its first home game and has dropped three straight, could have clinched at least an NFC wild-card spot with a win and some help. Instead, the Bucs' day ended with Jeff Garcia's face bloodied and teammates hoping other contenders falter.
"We've let ourselves down," said Garcia (21-for-35 232 yards), sporting a cut on the bridge of his nose.
"When you're 9-3 at one point and you're a couple of wins away from the playoffs, and now we're fighting just to get in . . . it's tough looking at it," Bucs running back Warrick Dunn added.
Rivers (21-for-31, 287 yards) threw TD passes of 15 and 5 yards to Antonio Gates, the latter giving the Chargers the lead for good on the first play of the fourth quarter. Darren Sproles turned a screen pass into a 32-yard touchdown before Antoine Cason returned one of San Diego's two fourth-quarter interceptions 59 yards for a score that made it 41-24 with 3 minutes left.
"That's the San Diego Chargers that we anticipated on being at the beginning of the year," Gates said. "Tampa Bay, with all due respect, there was nothing they could do about it once we had the rhythm like we had today." *