The 49ers versus Chargers matchup Thursday night isn’t what you would call sexy. Neither team has set the league on fire. Notoriously slow out of the gate, San Diego stayed true to form in September and October, but has since won four of five to significantly narrow the gap in the AFC West.
It hasn’t been an attractive season for the Niners, either. A 0-5 start to the season would’ve buried a team in any other division, but not the NFC West. Even at 5-8, San Francisco is still only a game back in the division, and a win on the road Thursday would apply a whole bunch of heat to the front-running Rams before the two hook up next week.
Together, the Chargers and Niners are 12-14. Not exactly national television material. Yet, here we are in Week 15, and both teams have plenty to play for.
Let’s breakdown some of the keys to this one:
This isn’t so much a matchup as it is a decision for Mike Singletary, who must choose whichever Smith he feels gives his Niners the best chance to win this week. Last week, it was Alex Smith, who started the first six games of the season before going down with a shoulder injury.
Troy Smith started five consecutive games in the middle portion of the season, and he served as a catalyst for the Niners’ mini-resurgence by bringing an added dimension to the offense with his ability to run.
Each brings his own skill set, but only one can start. Might we see both Smiths against San Diego, in what is a must-win game for the Niners?
Does Rivers Keep on Rolling?
Many will make a case for Philip Rivers to win the league MVP, and they would receive no rebuttal. He’s arguably been the glue that has kept the Chargers together, preventing the team from completely splintering off into tiny pieces.
If Rivers does win the award, it may be based more on intangibles than numbers. He leads the league in yards but is third in rating and tied for third in touchdown passes. That said, while Tom Brady will get plenty of consideration, Rivers will help his cause immensely if he can continue to put up solid numbers and the Chargers sneak into the playoffs with some momentum.
That likely won’t be an issue Thursday night for Rivers, who has actually thrown for 200 fewer yards in the Chargers’ seven wins (1,819) than he has in their six losses (2,049). The Niners have the NFL’s 20th-ranked pass defense, allowing 227 yards per game.
Pound The Rock
San Francisco is a run-first offense. It is Singletary’s preference to be able to run the ball at will and supplement the ground game with a good defense. The rushing numbers are modest—the Niners rank 18th in the league with 108 yards per game—but Singletary is not going to throw the philosophy out the window, especially against a San Diego defense that ranks first overall against the pass.
Frank Gore’s season-ending hip injury was a blow, but his absence opens up several doors. Rookie Anthony Dixon has been effective in relief, and the Niners will need him to make good on his carries against San Diego, which should be plentiful. Dixon averaged 4.3 yards per carry in a win over Seattle last week.
Dixon will likely get the bulk of the carries, but Brian Westbrook provides a nice change of pace. The 31-year-old veteran gained 136 yards on 23 attempts against the Cardinals last month, but lightening his workload on the ground opens up opportunities in the passing game, where Westbrook can make plays in space and give San Diego's defense one more thing worry about.
Bringin’ The Heat
It’s no secret why the Chargers are tops in the league against the pass. Few teams get to the quarterback more often than San Diego. In fact, only two—the New York Giants and Pittsburgh—boast more sacks than the Chargers’ 38.
San Diego’s pass rush is highlighted by defensive end Shaun Phillips, who has 10 sacks and should give San Francisco tackles Barry Sims and Anthony Davis more than they can handle. But the assault is more than just a one-man show. San Diego’s remaining 28 sacks come from 16 different players, indicating the Chargers are willing to attack the quarterback from anywhere on the field.
The Desperation Factor
Though a loss wouldn’t necessarily eliminate either team from playoff contention, it certainly would make things a bit tougher. The winner still has very realistic aspirations of nabbing a division title, while the loser enters panic mode.
In Week 16, the Niners will travel to St. Louis for a pivotal battle, but that game becomes exponentially more important if San Francisco wins Thursday night and the Rams are tripped up at home against Kansas City on Sunday. Otherwise, the Niners’ postseason hopes will be on life support.
The scenario is a bit different for the Chargers, whose only path to the playoffs is seemingly by winning the division over the Chiefs, with whom they split the season series. But despite San Diego’s prowess in December, locking down a postseason berth won’t be as easy as it looks.
The Chargers finish the season with Cincinnati and Denver, but neither sub-.500 team will turn down the role of spoiler, especially the Broncos, who will attempt to exact some payback for a 35-14 beatdown from San Diego in November.