The NFL's highest-rated passer threw for 287 yards and four touchdowns Sunday, helping the Chargers beat Tampa Bay 41-24. Then the Bolts got an early Christmas present when Buffalo beat Denver 30-23, setting up a monster matchup next week. Denver comes to San Diego on Sunday afternoon. The winner goes to the playoffs, the loser goes home.
San Diego (7-8) started the season with Super Bowl aspirations. Those hopes seemed to be dead when they sat at 4-8, three games behind the Broncos. Since then the Bolts have won three straight games while Denver has gone 1-2.
In Tampa, Rivers 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 three minutes left.
Garcia was hit from behind and came up with a bloody nose three plays before his pass intended for Ike Hilliard was tipped by Quentin Jammer into the hands of Cason, who raced up the left sideline untouched.
Brandon Manumaleuna caught an 11-yard TD pass from Rivers and Nate Kaeding kicked a team-record 57-yard field goal on the final play of the first half, helping the Chargers build a 20-10 lead.
Garcia, who started after sitting out last week with a strained right calf, kept the Bucs in the game by running for a third-quarter touchdown and lofting a 71-yard TD pass to Antonio Bryant for a 24-20 lead.
But it was all San Diego after that, and Rivers had a lot to do with it.
The Chargers moved the ball almost at will much of the day, scoring on three straight possessions to build an early 17-7 lead that Tampa Bay cut into by driving into San Diego territory and settling for Matt Bryant 49-yard field with 17 seconds left in the half.
But San Diego coach Norv Turner wasn't content with a seven-point advantage. After Sproles returned the ensuing kickoff to the Chargers 36, Rivers threw 25 yards to Vincent Jackson to set up the long field goal that Kaeding nailed with room to spare.
Jackson finished with seven receptions for 111 yards and went over 1,000 yards in a season for the first time in his career for San Diego.
Tampa Bay's defense was picked apart for the second time in three weeks. After giving up 474 yards rushing in road losses to Carolina and Atlanta, the unit never solved Rivers, who completed 21 of 31 passes with no interceptions.
Gates' TD receptions gave him eight this season and 51 for his career. He reached 50 in his 92nd game, fastest in league history for a tight end. Jerry Smith was the previous fastest, doing it in 100 games.
While they were flying back from Tampa, Buffalo did the Chargers a big favor. The Bills fell behind 13-0 in the first half, but outscored the Broncos 14-3 in the fourth quarter to pull off the upset win.