NFL Preview - San Francisco (5-8) at San Diego (7-6)
By Scott Garbarini, NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - The San Diego Chargers have made strong late-season finishes an art form in recent years, while the San Francisco 49ers are beginning to earn a reputation as a team that does its best work over the second half as well.
The two also share a similar predicament heading into a Thursday night interconference clash at San Diego's Qualcomm Stadium, with the loser of this Week 15 tilt likely faced with a major uphill climb in regards to making the playoffs.
Both the Chargers and 49ers presently sit one game out of first place in their respective divisions entering Thursday's matchup, with each team digging itself into a sizeable hole it's yet to completely crawl out of. San Diego has turned it on following a thoroughly disappointing 2-5 beginning to the season, having recorded victories in five of its last six contests, while San Francisco rebounded from a dreadful 0-5 start by winning five of eight games since.
The Chargers closed the gap on front-running Kansas City in the AFC West with an authoritative 31-0 home triumph over the short-handed Chiefs a week ago, in which their top-ranked defense yielded a paltry 67 total yards and five first downs in a suffocating display. The five first downs tied a franchise record for the least allowed in a single game, while the yardage total was the second- fewest in club history.
The resounding result improved San Diego to a sparkling 19-1 in December games since 2006, with the lone blemish a startling 28-13 loss to visiting Oakland in Week 13.
With road dates at doormats Cincinnati and Denver only left on the regular- season slate, the Chargers should have an opportunity to claim a fifth consecutive AFC West title if they can get past the resurgent 49ers and the Chiefs lose one of their three remaining games. San Diego would edge Kansas City in a tie-breaker if the rivals wind up deadlocked and it wins out by virtue of a superior conference record.
The Chiefs will visit St. Louis this weekend before closing out with home tests against Tennessee and Oakland, none of whom presently own a positive record.
San Francisco also gained some ground in the NFC West race this past Sunday after throttling skidding Seattle by a 40-21 score at Candlestick Park. With St. Louis also suffering a loss in Week 13, the Niners now have only one fewer win than the Seahawks and Rams in the battle for the division's top spot and travel to St. Louis for a high-stakes showdown following Thursday's bout.
A quarterback change and a submissive Seattle defense enabled San Francisco, one of the league's lowest-scoring teams this year, to register its highest point output of the season. In his first action since Oct. 24, former No. 1 overall pick Alex Smith delivered one of the best performances of his checkered career, throwing for 255 yards and three touchdowns without an interception on 17-for-27 passing.
Smith will try to build off that impressive showing and attempt to direct San Francisco to back-to-back wins for the first time in 2010. Prevailing on the road has been a problem for the Niners, though, as they'll be heading into Qualcomm Stadium with a 1-5 ledger as the guest this season.
The Chargers sport a 5-2 mark at home, with four of those victories coming by a margin of 21 points or greater,
The 49ers own a 6-5 advantage in their all-time regular-season series with the Chargers, but have lost each of their last two meetings with San Diego. The Bolts routed the Niners, 48-19, when the teams last met, at Candlestick Park in 2006. The Chargers took a 20-17 overtime decision when the teams last squared off in San Diego, in 2002. San Francisco's last win in the series came in 2000 on the road.
In addition to the regular-season series, the teams have met once in the postseason, a 49-26 Niners rout in Super Bowl XXIX from Miami.
Chargers head coach Norv Turner, was offensive coordinator with the 49ers in 2006, is 1-3 in his career against San Francisco, with all of those meetings coming during his tenure with the Washington Redskins from 1994-2000. The Niners' Mike Singletary will be meeting both Turner and the Chargers for the first time as a head coach.
WHEN THE 49ERS HAVE THE BALL
San Francisco had been a run-first offense built around the considerable talents of versatile back Frank Gore for most of this year, but the season- ending fractured hip the two-time Pro Bowler sustained in a Week 12 win at Arizona has caused a slight shift in philosophy. The injury helps explain Singletary's decision to re-insert Smith (1809 passing yards, 12 TD, 9 INT), a more polished passer than counterpart Troy Smith (1023 passing yards, 4 TD, 3 INT), into a starting role prior to the Seattle game, and the move has certainly paid off in the short term. Alex Smith connected with both tight end Vernon Davis (49 receptions, 6 TD) and running back Brian Westbrook (199 rushing yards, 11 receptions, 2 total TD) on long touchdown throws last week while also developing a rapport with Josh Morgan (32 receptions, 2 TD), with the young wideout compiling a season-high 82 receiving yards and a score on three catches in the wake of the switch. Replacing Gore's running skills has been tough, as the brittle Westbrook and rookie Anthony Dixon (165 rushing yards, 2 TD) have combined for only 147 yards in two games since the Niners' top back went down. Dixon received the bulk of the carries against the Seahawks, while Westbrook contributed a team bests of six catches and 87 receiving yards.
Alex Smith figures to draw a tougher assignment than last Sunday's task, as the Chargers have permitted league-lows of 265.0 total yards and 173.4 passing yards per game and are tied for third in the NFL with 38 sacks, a concern for a San Francisco offensive line that will again be without stalwart left tackle Joe Staley (fractured fibula). Shaun Phillips (46 tackles, 10 sacks, 1 INT) has been a pass-rushing terror from his outside linebacker spot all year long, with inside starter Kevin Burnett (75 tackles, 5 sacks, 2 INT) and nose tackle Antonio Garay (41 tackles, 4 sacks) lending a strong push from the interior. The front seven has been backed up from solid play from cornerbacks Antoine Cason (57 tackles, 4 INT, 16 PD) and Quentin Jammer (35 tackles, 1 INT, 10 PD), while Burnett and fellow inside linebacker Brandon Siler (32 tackles, 1 sack, 1 INT) head up a group that's surrendering just 91.6 rushing yards per contest (4th overall) and limited Kansas City's potent ground attack to 48 yards last week. Siler enters Thursday's test as a question mark, though, after aggravating a rib injury against the Chiefs.
WHEN THE CHARGERS HAVE THE BALL
San Diego's been excellent on this side of the ball as well, possessing a dangerous offense that ranks second in the NFL in total yards (399.6 ypg) and passing yards (286.2 ypg) and is scoring at a stellar 30.1 points per game clip at home. The undeniable catalyst has been quarterback Philip Rivers (3868 passing yards, 26 TD, 11 INT), a fiery leader who's been both accurate (66.1 percent completion rate) and tough during an All-Pro caliber campaign, and the standout signal-caller gets ample support from a good collection of pass- catchers that may or may not include leading receiver Antonio Gates (50 receptions, 782 yards, 10 TD) this week. The difference-making tight end has been dealing with a painful plantar fascia tear in his right foot for much of the season and sat out the Kansas City game, and his status for Thursday is very much up in the air. Rivers will still have plenty of capable options with or without Gates, as two-time 1,000-yard receiver Vincent Jackson and Malcom Floyd (35 receptions, 6 TD) are two big and fast targets on the outside and diminutive running back Darren Sproles (215 rushing yards, 44 receptions, 4 TD) is a terrific open-field runner and an integral part of the passing game. He's one of three quality backs on the roster along with converted fullback Mike Tolbert (691 rushing yards, 10 TD, 25 receptions) and promising rookie Ryan Mathews (447 rushing yards, 3 TD, 16 receptions), a duo which teamed up for 131 rushing yards and two scores in last week's rout of the Chiefs.
Rivers will be airing out against a San Francisco stop unit that's just 23rd in pass efficiency defense this season but came up with four interceptions of Seattle triggerman Matt Hasselbeck on Sunday, with free safety Dashon Goldson (66 tackles, 1 INT) returning one of those picks for a touchdown. The Niners also have the ability to create pressure, as outside linebackers Travis LaBoy (26 tackles, 5 sacks), Ahmad Brooks (22 tackles, 4 sacks) and Parys Haralson (29 tackles, 4 sacks) are all proven pass rushers and end Justin Smith (54 tackles, 5.5 sacks) is an outstanding all-around lineman. The Niners' best skill is stopping the run, however, with playmaking inside linebacker Patrick Willis (108 tackles, 5 sacks), Smith and sturdy nose tackle Aubrayo Franklin (33 tackles) the headliners of a pack that's allowing a respectable 3.7 yards per rush attempt on the season. Veteran inside linebacker Takeo Spikes (91 tackles, 8 PD) has done his part as well, ranking second on the club in tackles and snaring three interceptions from his post opposite Willis.
Most of the favorable choices here lie on the San Diego side. Rivers is a premier fantasy quarterback and every-week start, Tolbert has scored 10 touchdowns as the goal-line back of a high-scoring offense and Jackson looks finally ready to make an impact after missing most of the year with injuries and a prolonged contract dispute. Floyd and Sproles also have good value, especially in either point-per-reception leagues or ones that count return yardage in the latter's case. Gates is an extremely risky call, however, and may have a greatly diminished role if he does play and the Chargers are able to grab a comfortable lead. The 49ers are averaging under 19 points a game on the season, making the San Diego defense a wise selection. Don't jump to conclusions over Alex Smith's effort last week, as the competition will be steeper this time around for the erratic San Francisco quarterback, but Davis is a sensible alternative at the tight end position and both Dixon and Westbrook are usable running backs without significantly high ceilings. San Francisco's wideout pairing of Morgan and Michael Crabtree (42 receptions, 5 TD) have been very hit-or-miss, and avoid the Niners' defense this week.
The 49ers have resembled the playoff team they were expected to be heading into this season as of late, though their recent exploits should be taken with a grain of salt. San Francisco hasn't beaten a team that currently owns a winning record and has generally been lousy on the road, with its lone win a trumping of a disheveled Arizona club a few weeks back. Though the Chargers have been prone to putting forth unexplained clunkers at times, they're also capable of going on a roll that the less-talented Niners won't be able to effectively stop if their opponent has all its parts working together in unison. This could very well be one of those times, with Smith finding last week's success much harder to come by and San Diego shutting down a watered-down San Francisco running game en route to another December win.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Chargers 27, 49ers 13
12/14 18:02:26 ET