NFL Preview - San Diego (8-6) at San Francisco (7-7)
By Michael Rushton, Contributing NFL Editor
(SportsNetwork.com) - For the first time in four seasons under coach Jim Harbaugh, the San Francisco 49ers won't be going to the postseason.
Owners of two straight losses, the San Diego Chargers are in danger of joining them.
The Chargers hope to stay alive in the playoff hunt this Saturday night when they visit the 49ers and Levi's Stadium.
San Diego used a three-game winning streak to move into the postseason picture in the AFC, but a pair of losses to the best the conference has to offer as taken the club out of the driver's seat.
The Chargers had their win streak halted with a 23-14 loss to the New England Patriots on Dec. 7 and were then bested by the Denver Broncos 22-10 this past Sunday.
At 8-6, the Chargers are tied with Kansas City and Buffalo at one game back of Pittsburgh and Baltimore for the two wild card positions. That means San Diego will likely need to win this Saturday and in its regular-season finale at the Chiefs, plus get help, to reach the playoffs.
The Chargers, without running back Ryan Mathews due to an ankle injury, were held to 288 total yards of offense in the loss to the Broncos. Philip Rivers completed 24-of-41 pass attempts for 232 yards, completing a touchdown pass to tight end Antonio Gates while also throwing two interceptions.
Kicker Nick Novak also missed a pair of field goal attempts, further deflating an offense that had managed just 216 total yards a week earlier versus the Patriots.
"It was a tough two-game stretch against the best teams in the conference and we're not in their company yet," said Rivers. "We're just not. That doesn't mean we can't be or that I think we can't beat them. I believe we can."
The Chargers hope to get on track Saturday and deal the 49ers a fourth loss in a row. San Francisco has lost twice to division-rival Seattle twice over that span, including a 17-7 setback on the road this past Sunday that, along with Detroit's win over Minnesota, knocked the 49ers out of the playoff picture.
San Francisco had reached the NFC Championship Game in each of its first three seasons under Harbaugh, including one Super Bowl appearance.
Now, there is continued speculation that Harbaugh won't even return as the team's coach next season.
"I'm aware of it and I understand what it means," 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh said of his team missing the postseason. "We'll never give in, keep fighting."
San Francisco lost running backs Frank Gore (concussion) and Carlos Hyde (ankle) to injury during the game and also saw rookie linebacker Chris Borland depart with his own ankle injury.
Seattle allowed 178 yards to San Francisco in the first half, but clamped down and limited the 49ers to a meager 67 over the final 30 minutes.
The Seahawks outscored the 49ers 14-0 in the second half.
Colin Kaepernick completed 11-of-19 passes for 141 yards for the 49ers, while getting sacked six times.
Sunday was the seventh time in their last eight contests that the 49ers failed to score more than 17 points.
"It is difficult," Kaepernick told San Francisco's website of missing the postseason. "That's our expectation: that we're going to get to the playoffs and we're going to make a run. To not get that opportunity this year is not something that we're used to."
The all-time series between the Niners and Chargers is even at 6-6, though that does not include San Francisco's victory over San Diego in Super Bowl XXIX.
The Chargers have won three straight over the Niners, including a 34-7 decision in the most recent meeting in 2010. Rivers posted a 150.5 passer rating in that game, throwing for 273 yards with three touchdowns and no interceptions.
San Francisco's offense was held to 192 total net yards.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
Both teams come in hobbling, having lost several key players last Sunday.
San Diego, which has the 12th-ranked passing offense in the league, will be without wide receiver Keenan Allen, who has been ruled out due to a broken collarbone and ankle injury sustained in the third quarter against the Broncos. He leads the Chargers with 77 catches and 783 yards to go along with four touchdown receptions.
"There's no doubt it hurts," Rivers said of losing Allen. "You know how I am with any injury we've had over the years and dealt with. I never want to slight the player that we're losing, but at the same time, you don't want to slight the guys who are going to be stepping up. So we'll miss him."
Those expected to step up include wideouts Eddie Royal, Malcom Floyd and Seyi Aijrotutu, while Gates is always a factor as well.
Gates needs just two more TD catches to tie Don Hutson (99) for ninth place in league history.
San Diego is averaging just 82.6 rushing yards per game, 31st in the league, and there is a good chance Mathews is out again this weekend, while Rivers did not practice on Tuesday and Wednesday because of injury.
Rivers, though, expects to play on Saturday and extend his streak of 142 straight starts. He is 2-0 as a starter versus the Niners with 607 passing yards, five touchdowns and zero interceptions for a 130.1 passer rating.
"I hate not practicing," Rivers told San Diego's website. "But I think at some point you've got to do what's best for me and the team. Practicing today wouldn't have been beneficial moving toward Saturday ... Where we are in the season, and what I can get done in the walk through, it's not a major concern."
San Diego's ninth-ranked defense wasn't immune to injury either, with inside linebacker Donald Butler going on injured reserve because of a dislocated elbow sustained versus the Broncos. He was second on the club with 73 tackles and also had three fumble recoveries.
The Chargers will be going up against a Niners offense that may be without its top two running backs in Gore and Hyde. The latter already doesn't expect to play, while Gore must pass concussion protocol.
With those two sidelined from practice this week, San Francisco signed Phillip Tanner, leaving him and Alfonso Smith as the only healthy running backs available.
San Francisco's ranks 13th on the ground, with Gore posting 804 yards on 204 carries with three touchdowns. He also is scheduled to be a free agent as season's end.
"Frank obviously has been a huge asset to this team," said Kaepernick. "He's been a great player, a great leader on this team, and we want to win as many games as we can for him and everyone."
Perhaps the bigger blow is the loss of Borland, the team's leading tackler with 107. He helped fill the void left by injured linebackers Patrick Willis and NaVarro Bowman and Nick Moody is expected to start in his place on Saturday.
Moody, in his second season, stepped in for Borland versus the Seahawks and had five tackles. Saturday could mark his first NFL start.
"It felt real good," Moody said on the Niners' website of getting into the game, "especially knowing that the guys had confidence in me."
San Francisco did come up with five sacks versus the Seahawks and still rank third in total defense with 307.1 yards allowed per game. Defensive tackle Tank Carradine picked up the first two sacks of his career, while linebacker Ahmad Brooks notched his team-leading sixth sack.
Defensive tackle Ray McDonald also had a sack, but the Niners opted to release the troubled player on Wednesday after police announced he is the suspect in a sexual assault case.
The 49ers stuck with McDonald after he was arrested in August on charges of domestic violence, which were dropped on Nov. 10 due to insufficient evidence, and he has not been arrested for the current charges as the investigation is ongoing, but San Francisco still decided to terminate his contract.
"Ray has demonstrated a pattern of poor decision-making that is no longer going to be tolerated," San Francisco general manager Trent Baalke said in a statement.
The Niners are the definition of a lame duck right now and reports have already surfaced of Harbaugh being offered a massive deal to become head coach of the Michigan Wolverines.
Couple that distraction with continued struggles by Kaepernick, who has thrown for fewer than 200 yards in three straight and four of his last five, and this has all the makings of a blowout loss in front of a frustrated fanbase.
The Chargers still have a ton to play for and their goal will be to keep Rivers healthy and intact for hopefully a big Week 17 meeting at Kansas City. Though banged up, San Francisco can still bring heat on the quarterback and not having Mathews or Allen will impact the Chargers offense as well.
San Francisco should be loose, but that may not be a good thing given its inability to put up points right now.
Sports Network predicted outcome: Chargers 17, 49ers 13
12/18 11:24:48 ET
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