TAMPA, Fla. — Survival mode seems to be a pretty good fit for Philip Rivers and the San Diego Chargers.
The NFL's highest-rated passer threw for 287 yards and four touchdowns Sunday, helping the Chargers beat Tampa Bay 41-24 to keep their slim playoff hopes alive and deal a crushing blow to the Buccaneers' chances.
Even with their third straight win in what amounted to elimination games for a team that began the season with expectations of reaching the Super Bowl, San Diego (7-8) still needed help to make the final week of the regular season meaningful.
AFC West leader Denver played at Buffalo later in the day. A Broncos loss would set up a showdown for the division title and a playoff berth next week in San Diego.
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 outside help. Instead, the Bucs' day ended with quarterback Jeff Garcia's nose bloodied and hoping three other contenders — Atlanta, Philadelphia and Dallas — falter the rest of the way, too.
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.
Garcia scored on a 7-yard run, finishing a 78-yard drive that take up the first half of the third quarter and trimmed San Diego's lead to 20-17. He did a nice job of rolling to his right to avoid pressure and finding Bryant all alone on the TD that put the Bucs up 24-20.
Bryant finished with six catches for 127 yards, his sixth 100-yard game of the year.