Although they’ve looked sluggish at times and haven’t put together a convincing victory, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers are tied for first in the NFC South.
The San Francisco 49ers find themselves in a similar position - atop their division thanks to several gritty wins.
In a matchup between surprising division leaders, the Buccaneers look to win a fourth straight game Sunday when they visit a 49ers team hoping to build on a thrilling comeback which capped a successful week-long trip.
Tampa Bay (3-1) travels to San Francisco in a short week after beating Indianapolis 24-17 on Monday night to keep pace with New Orleans in the South. The Buccaneers had some trouble with the winless Colts, trailing 10-0 in the second quarter, and didn’t take their first lead until LeGarrette Blount(notes) capped the scoring with a 35-yard TD run with 3:15 remaining.
It’s also a bit of a sloppy team. The Bucs managed to overcome touchdown passes of 87 and 59 yards, as well as 14 penalties for 106 yards.
Winning ugly has been common for Tampa Bay. After rallying from a 10-point, fourth-quarter deficit to beat winless Minnesota 24-20 in Week 2, the Bucs nearly blew a 13-point, fourth-quarter lead in a 16-13 win over Atlanta on Sept. 25.
“Survive and advance. That’s what we’re after,” coach Raheem Morris said. “The fact is you’re 3-1. And you’re very excited about it. Got a short week and we’re going to San Francisco.”
Tampa Bay, trying to open 4-1 for the first time since 2005, won at Candlestick Park 21-0 last November. Freeman passed for two touchdowns as the Bucs snapped an eight-game losing streak in San Francisco and won for just the second time in 13 games there.
Duplicating that performance likely won’t be easy.
An injured Alex Smith missed that game as the 49ers were held to 189 total yards. San Francisco opened last season with five straight losses, but Smith now has the team in position to start 4-1 for the first time since 2002 - the last time it won the NFC West.
The 49ers (3-1) have a two-game lead atop the division following last Sunday’s stunning 24-23 comeback win in Philadelphia. Smith completed 13 of 17 passes for 201 yards and two touchdowns in the second half as San Francisco rallied from a 23-3 third-quarter deficit.
“It’s a great character builder for a young team,” first-year coach Jim Harbaugh said. “To really know and trust and believe that they can and will do well (and) believe that they are good enough to do well - that’s big. That’s the way we wanted them to play, and that’s the way they played.”
The win came after Harbaugh decided to have his team spend a week in Ohio following a 13-8 comeback victory at Cincinnati on Sept. 25.
Gore, who had been bothered by a sprained right ankle and averaged 2.5 yards per carry in the first three games, got on track against the Eagles with a season-best 127 yards on 15 carries.
The 49ers are 28th in the league in total offense at 292.0 yards per game but should find success if they continue to get big games from the two-time Pro Bowl running back. Since the start of the 2007 season, San Francisco is 11-4 when Gore reaches the 100-yard mark and 14-29 when he doesn’t.
He’ll be facing a Tampa Bay defense that is 11th against the run, allowing an average of 101.0 yards. The Bucs limited Gore to 23 yards on 12 attempts last year.
It will now try to slow down Blount, who ran for a season-best 127 yards Monday and is third in the NFL in rushing over the last three weeks with 279.