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Despite Justin Herbert’s success, Chargers fumble big lead and hand off win to Bucs

Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert throws a pass against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert throws a pass during the first half in Sunday’s loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
(Jason Behnken / Associated Press)

Justin Herbert completed 80% of his attempts Sunday, threw three expertly placed balls for touchdowns and, entering the fourth quarter, had a perfect passer rating.

But a handoff — of all things — torpedoed what was setting up to be an epic day for the rookie in a developing shootout with Tom Brady, a cinch Hall of Famer and a quarterback widely considered to be the greatest.

Herbert and Josh Kelley had what appeared to be a less-than-clean exchange late in the first half, the miscue resulting in a Kelley fumble.

Tampa Bay used the gift to score an unexpected touchdown and launch a roaring comeback that ended as a 38-31 Chargers defeat at Raymond James Stadium.

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“Those two guys, they have to make that exchange,” said coach Anthony Lynn, who called the mistake “inexcusable.” “Something we work [on] every day. If you can’t hand the ball off cleanly then something’s wrong, you know?”

Herbert explained the turnover as being more a product of penetration from the Buccaneers’ Ndamukong Suh, who was credited with causing the fumble.

Chargers rookie Justin Herbert threw for three touchdowns with a lofty passer rating of 137.9, but it wasn’t enough to beat Tom Brady and Tampa Bay.

Three plays later, Brady connected with Mike Evans for a six-yard touchdown as Tampa Bay began erasing a 17-point Chargers lead.

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“I think that’s just one of those plays where the D-lineman made a great play and knocked it out,” Herbert said. Asked specifically about the exchange, he said, “It felt normal to me.”

To that point and well into the second half, Herbert flatly dazzled. He connected with wide receiver Tyron Johnson on a 53-yard touchdown on the Chargers’ fourth play from scrimmage.

Midway through the second quarter, he led the offense on a 13-play, 97-yard drive and capped the march by hitting tight end Donald Parham Jr. for a 19-yard touchdown.

Johnson was on the practice squad until getting promoted Saturday. Parham’s most recent game appearance had come in the XFL. Both players were making their NFL debuts and both touchdowns came on their first career receptions.

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Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Tom Brady eludes Chargers linebacker Uchenna Nwosu as he throws.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Tom Brady eludes Chargers linebacker Uchenna Nwosu as he throws during the first half on Sunday.
(Jason Behnken / Associated Press)

The Chargers defense also produced some offense, cornerback Michael Davis returning a Brady interception 78 yards for a first-quarter touchdown. That contribution was a bonus for a unit that has struggled to cause turnovers.

When Michael Badgley kicked a 53-yard field goal with 1:37 remaining before halftime, the Chargers had Brady and the Buccaneers down 24-7, a stunning development for a team that entered as a touchdown underdog.

But the tenor of the afternoon shifted after the Chargers defense forced a punt, giving the offense the ball again, this time at its nine-yard line with 47 seconds left.

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Later, both Evans and coach Bruce Arians indicated to Tampa Bay reporters that they were surprised the Chargers opted to not kneel down and run out the rest of the clock.

Instead, Herbert attempted the handoff to Kelley — one rookie to another rookie — with disastrous results.

With two games already postponed because of positive coronavirus tests, the NFL could benefit from expanding the season to an 18th week.

Following the fumble, the Buccaneers scored 21 consecutive points as they staged the second-largest comeback in franchise history.

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They scored on five straight possessions — four touchdowns and a field goal — against a Chargers defense that had permitted only four touchdowns in the first three games.

In all, Brady passed for five scores and 369 yards. Tampa Bay amassed 484 total yards and had a 100-yard rusher (Ronald Jones) and a 100-yard receiver (Evans).

“We had some busted assignments,” Lynn said. “It’s that simple. Guys gave up some explosive plays.”

Herbert finished 20 for 25 for 290 yards, narrowly missing an NFL record third consecutive 300-yard game to start his career.

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Having fallen behind late in the third quarter, he hit Jalen Guyton for a 72-yard score to put the Chargers back up 31-28, the sort of throw that had Arians later comparing Herbert to Patrick Mahomes.

While Lynn praised Herbert for his poise and making “some great throws,” he also noted the Chargers again lost, dropping the team’s record in games Herbert has started to 0-3.

Chargers running back Austin Ekeler was carted off the field after sustaining a hamstring injury in the first half of Sunday’s loss to the Bucs.

The Chargers’ final attempt to pull even ended when Herbert threw an interception near midfield in the closing three minutes.

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“I thought he played well,” Lynn said. “We lost the game. Anytime we lose the game, it’s not good enough. So I can’t say someone played outstanding and we go out and lose the damn football game.”

The coach also wouldn’t name a starting quarterback for the Chargers’ next game — Oct. 12 at New Orleans. Herbert has been filling in for the injured Tyrod Taylor, who could be close to returning to practice.

Lynn has remained steadfast that Taylor will return as the starter when he’s “100% healthy.” Taylor is out with a rib injury and a punctured lung, the latter the result of a pregame medical mistake by a team doctor.

“I can’t answer that question right now,” Lynn said. “My mind is still on this game.”

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Miller reported from Los Angeles.


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