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Chargers counter Bucs’ Tom Brady with Justin Herbert, a rookie barely half his age

Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert rolls out of the pocket during last week's loss to the Carolina Panthers.
Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert rolls out of the pocket during last week’s loss to the Carolina Panthers. Can the rookie signal-caller lead the Chargers past the Buccaneers on Sunday?
(Harry How / Getty Images)

He has won more games and Super Bowls than any other quarterback, his completed passes over 21 seasons covering more than 42 miles.

Tom Brady will wear Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ jersey No. 12 on Sunday against the Chargers but only because he isn’t ready for his gold jacket.

“We gotta compete for 60 minutes,” Chargers defensive lineman Damion Square said, “and try to knock down a giant.”

At 43, Brady is the league’s oldest player. He’s also the closest thing the NFL has to a living, breathing bronze bust.

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After two decades — and six Super Bowl titles — with New England, Brady left in March to sign with Tampa Bay, after also considering the Chargers as his next employers.

Barring something late and unforeseen, they won’t miss out on him this time.

Justin Herbert has felt plenty of pressure in his first two NFL starts, but Sunday the Chargers rookie faces a Tampa Bay defense that loves to blitz.

“I’ve seen him since I was like 4 years old,” Chargers running back Josh Kelley said. “Elementary school, middle school, high school, college, now. That’s crazy how he’s still playing and he’s still producing.”

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The Chargers will counter with Justin Herbert, at 22 the league’s youngest quarterback. The NFL says there hasn’t been an age gap of 20-plus years between starting quarterbacks since at least 1950.

And, no, 1950 wasn’t Brady’s rookie year.

“It’s going to be crazy just to see that across the field,” Kelley said. “But I gotta be focused on trying to do my best. I can be a fan afterward. During those 60 minutes, it’s all business.”

And the Chargers have plenty of business to take care of at Raymond James Stadium. They are 1-2 and coming off a home loss to a Carolina team that coach Anthony Lynn admitted they should have beaten.

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Just like a year ago, when they underachieved their way to a 5-11 finish, these Chargers are losing the turnover battle and failing to make the late, necessary plays to win tight games.

In the last two weeks, they couldn’t hold a pair of fourth-quarter leads before losing in overtime to Kansas City and missed executing a trick play that could have produced the game-winning touchdown against the Panthers as time expired.

Since their season-opening overtime victory over Indianapolis in September 2019, the Chargers have dropped 11 of 13 one-score games.

“In college, at some point, the game is won,” Square said. “But, in the NFL, all the games are decided by seven or three points. The margin of error is so small that you have no time to lift your head up.

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“It’s just something we have to continue to harp on. We have to help the younger guys understand that process. I think once everybody starts to buy in together we’ll start to complete games.”

New England quarterback Cam Newton reportedly tested positive for the coronavirus, and the Patriots’ game versus the Chiefs will not be played Sunday.

Completing drives would help. Only five teams have gained more yards this season than the Chargers have. But just three teams have scored fewer points.

The Chargers have scored five touchdowns in three games. Kansas City, Seattle and Buffalo each scored five touchdowns last weekend.

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“You can move the ball all you want,” offensive coordinator Shane Steichen said. “But, if you’re not scoring, it doesn’t mean nothing.”

Last weekend, three turnovers torpedoed potential scoring drives. Those miscues also led to 12 Carolina points on a day the Chargers’ shaky play left little room for such gaffes.

They led the Super Bowl champion Chiefs most of the afternoon in Week 2 and were moving toward a potentially decisive blow when Herbert threw an interception.

Just two years ago, the Chargers also opened 1-2 before going on a run that saw them end with a 12-4 record. Lynn noted that starting in Week 4 that team had only three turnovers while generating nine takeaways during a six-game winning streak.

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“It’s nothing we haven’t done,” he said. “We just gotta get back to doing it.”

Then he added: “When I look at those first three games, I think we could be 3-0. I know damn well you could say we could be 0-3, as well. But we’ve been in every single game. We’ve had an opportunity to win those games.”

The Chargers have another opportunity Sunday, an opportunity against a legendary quarterback who has beaten this franchise nine times in 11 games, including the postseason.

When the Chargers saw Brady most recently, he was throwing for 343 yards in a 41-28 New England victory in the divisional round of the playoffs following the 2018 season. Three weeks later, the Patriots beat the Rams 13-3 in Super Bowl LIII.

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“You can’t get emotional with this guy,” Square said. “He’s going to make plays. He’s going to get first downs. He’s going to convert things. You can’t let that frustrate you. He’s still who he is. He’s the ultimate competitor, the ultimate winner.”

And, Sunday, the ultimate challenge, the Buccaneers’ Tampa Bay Giant.


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