Source: USA Today
It's under the bright lights and on the league's signature network. If it feels like a playoff game and the players act like it's a playoff game, then maybe it just is a playoff game.
Whatever one calls San Diego's Thursday outing against the visiting 49ers, the stakes are clear: A Chargers loss knocks them out of the AFC West chase.
The Chargers pulled within one game of the first-place Chiefs by blanking Kansas City 31-0 last week. The win came one week after a baffling showing in which the Chargers were dominated by the Raiders.
Because of that, Thursday is a must-win game. Because of that, the Chargers swear they won't let the 49ers tiptoe into town and deliver a haymaker like the one their Bay Area neighbor supplied.
"It gets out guys' attention," Chargers coach Norv Turner said.
Turner was talking of the 49ers' 40-21 demolition of the Seahawks leading into their trip to San Diego.
Among the black marks on the Chargers' ledger is a loss to Seattle.
Guess what? The 49ers also defeated the Raiders — a team that has defeated the Chargers twice this season.
"This team beat the Raiders," Turner stressed. "They ran the ball against the Raiders, and they stopped the run against the Raiders."
The 49ers got on a roll after starting 0-5, and they are just a game back in their division race. No way they come into town for just margaritas and a sunset — they've got plenty at stake, too.
"This is a very talented football team that has been up and down," Turner said. "They have not had consistency from a standpoint of the same guy playing at quarterback. They've had different guys come in and give them a lift. But they're a very good offensive line with two very good runners. They've got two outstanding tight ends. "
The 49ers will have to be on their game to keep up with the Chargers, who are averaging 400 yards and 27.2 points a game this season.
Turner is wary of the 49ers defense, which includes three-time Pro Bowl linebacker Patrick Willis.
"Their defensive front is very, very active," Turner said. "I think they're a veteran secondary. They caused five turnovers last week against Seattle."
The Chargers induce heartburn with their roller-coaster act, but despite being only just 7-6, they remain among the NFL's most dangerous teams. Especially if their mental approach accompanies their physical skills.
Turner has much to do, including "making sure our guys are as focused on San Francisco as I am."
It's crystal clear what happens if they aren't. The Chargers' playoff dreams will die on national television.
But there's also signs the Chargers are hitting their usual late-season stride heading into their third home game in 12 days.
They've won five of their past six games. Pro Bowl wide receiver Vincent Jackson has returned. Running back Ryan Mathews, their rookie first-round pick, is running with a renewed sense of confidence. Philip Rivers is as accurate as ever and brings a 20-1 record into games played in December and January.
Add it all up and it sounds as if things are rolling the Chargers' way. They get one more shot to rock at home, and it comes Thursday against the 49ers.
SERIES HISTORY: 12th regular-season meeting. 49ers lead series, 6-5. The Chargers will also be linked with the 49ers in playoff lore, as San Francisco beat San Diego 49-26 in the Super Bowl following the 1994 season. The Chargers have been to one conference title game since. The Chargers have split their six home games against the 49ers, but San Francisco hasn't visited since 2002, when the Chargers won in overtime.
—Tight end Antonio Gates has a torn plantar fascia, but he isn't giving the injury time to heal. Instead, he pushes it each week; sometimes he plays, often he doesn't. He's missed three of the past five games.
"My problem is that I can't sit down, which is probably why it's been prolonged to this point," Gates said. "The urge of wanting to play is always there."
Gates could easily be down again Thursday.
"The reality is that I should stay off of it for five, six or seven weeks to get it right," Gates said. "But the question is, how well do I have to be to go out and play in a game. I've played twice, and after the Oakland game, there was a tremendous drop-off in my ability to move and my ability to run. But at this point, we have three games, and we have to win them all. I'm going to do whatever it takes to play in as many as I can."
—Running back Ryan Mathews is coming off a solid performance, one the team hopes the rookie builds on. Mathews compiled 65 yards and a touchdown on 16 carries. "He's been plagued with injury this year, so to see him back on the field, doing a good job and having fun was really special," said running mate Mike Tolbert, who had 16 carries for 66 yards and a touchdown. "I'm so happy he was able to get in the end zone and show what he can do. When we're both going strong, Ryan and I can make one hell of a 1-2 punch."
—Cornerback Antoine Cason could remain the Chargers' punt returner after an impressive showing Sunday while spelling Darren Sproles.
Sproles was coming off a concussion, so Cason took over and had a long of 42 yards. Sproles, too, looked fresher in the base offense. Cason has played with more confidence of late, and that showed on his returns.
"We knew the situation with Darren this week, and if he's back on Thursday, that's great," Cason said. "Whatever helps us win, I'll do. I was confident in my ability to perform well and glad that I was able to give us a spark."
—Wide receiver Vincent Jackson contributed catching and blocking Sunday in his first extended playing time of the year. Jackson had only one catch for 14 yards, but he opened up the running lanes with his downfield routes; his blocking was keen as well.
"I thought Vincent Jackson had a real presence, impact on the game," coach Norv Turner said. "We saw some great looks to run the ball when both our outside receivers were being doubled. It gives you some opportunities to run the ball that you don't see a lot and that we haven't seen. Obviously the big plays he made on third down helped us. It was nice getting him back in the mix."
—Wide receiver Legedu Naanee denied being involved in an altercation at a San Diego-area bar. "It's sad that someone can throw your name into a situation so easily and you become attached to it whether you were a part of it or not," Naanee said. One of the witnesses had mentioned Naanee as being involved. Bar West was also the location of an incident involving former Chargers cornerback Antonio Cromartie, who was accused of throwing a champagne bottle at another patron. No charges were filed against Cromartie.
—A win Thursday would keep the Chargers on track for the playoffs — not that they have much wiggle room.
"We moved from the backseat to the passenger's seat, but we still aren't driving," right tackle Jeromey Clary said. "That said, there's a lot of football left. A lot has to happen between now and season's end for us to end up on top."
—The Chargers sold enough tickets to avoid a local TV blackout of their final home regular-season game. Three of the eight were blacked out this season.
BY THE NUMBERS: 132 — Passing yards needed by Philip Rivers to reach 4,000 yards in three consecutive seasons; Dan Fouts did it as well.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "I really believe this is our chance, this is our year, just because of all the things we've had to overcome." — TE Antonio Gates, on his drive to play through a foot injury.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
Look for DT Ogemdi Nwagbuo to get more action, and for Cam Thomas to be active Thursday to shore up the middle of the line.
DT Antonio Garay, the starter, has a gimpy ankle. He'll likely go Thursday, but with a heavier rotation involving Nwagbuo and Thomas, a rookie. Nwagbuo had three tackles and a half-sack last week in increased time.
—RG Louis Vasquez looks to return to the starting lineup after missing three games with a neck injury.
—WR Kelley Washington, the latest in a long list of Chargers receivers this year, had three catches for 50 yards Sunday, including one for 20 yards.
—TE Randy McMichael continues to fill in well for Antonio Gates. The veteran McMichael had two catches for 26 yards Sunday.
—RB Darren Sproles continued returning kicks last week. He had only one chance, and he took it 27 yards. Sproles also had 104 offensive yards.
—RB Mike Tolbert, who has received the majority of the rushes this year, has 10 rushing touchdowns. Ryan Mathews is getting more carries, but Tolbert remains a key part of the mix.
GAME PLAN: The Chargers don't think the 49ers have the firepower to keep pace, although San Francisco QB Alex Smith is coming off a solid game. San Diego hopes to come out aggressive to grab an early lead against an offense not built to play catch-up.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH: The Chargers' running game, with three backs, vs. the 49ers' run defense, which allows 100 yards per game. The Chargers enjoyed attacking the Chiefs with Mike Tolbert, Ryan Mathews and Darren Sproles. And maybe that works in San Diego's favor, as no single back has rushed for 100 yards against the 49ers this season. San Francisco's streak of 19 straight games without allowing a 100-yard game to a rusher is the second longest in the league.
The Chargers' vertical passing game vs. the 49ers' secondary. With Vincent Jackson getting back into the flow, the Chargers' passing game has a new look. He is extending the defense in a way that is opening up the running lanes and underneath routes. The 49ers have struggled on the back end, ranking No. 20 against the pass. That said, San Francisco did have four interceptions last week in a win over the Seahawks. Still, the 49ers' defensive strength is against the run, and the Chargers won't be shy about going to the pass if the run stalls.
The Chargers' pass defense, which hasn't been tested of late, vs. a 49ers passing game showing a spark with Vernon Davis and Michael Crabtree. The Chargers' back end has had two games in which it's barely broken a sweat. The Raiders, two weeks ago, pounded away on the ground. And last Sunday, Brodie Croyle was overmatched and not allowed to pass often. Can the Chargers standup to Smith and his impressive targets? CBs Antoine Cason and Quentin Jammer have been playing well, but they'll be asked to do more this game than in the previous two.
INJURY IMPACT: TE Antonio Gates (toe, foot) wasn't able to practice Tuesday, which isn't a good sign for Thursday. He will test his foot before kickoff and make a decision then.
—RG Louis Vasquez (neck) was a full practice participant Tuesday, and he likely will start Thursday.
—ILB Brandon Siler (ribs) didn't practice Tuesday after aggravating the injury Sunday. He could go in Thursday's game, but he would be far from 100 percent.
—WR Patrick Crayton (wrist) didn't practice Tuesday and will not play this week.
—WR Legedu Naanee (hamstring) was a full participant in practice Tuesday, and he could play Thursday.
—OLB Larry English (foot) wasn't able to practice Tuesday, and that's not a good sign. He came back from foot surgery earlier this season.
—DT Antonio Garay (ankle) didn't practice Tuesday, but he could try to do so Wednesday. If he plays Thursday, he would be rotated more liberally.
—WR Malcom Floyd (hamstring) was a limited participant in practice Tuesday. He'll like play Thursday, but his hamstring is still tender.