Don’t look now, but with first place in the AFC West and a playoff spot within reach, the once-struggling San Diego Chargers are coming on strong.
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The Chargers excelled in all three phases of the game Thursday night against San Francisco, shutting down the 49ers and getting a breakout, three-touchdown performance from wide receiver Vincent Jackson in a 34-7 win.
The victory allowed the Chargers to inch within a half-game of the division-leading Kansas City Chiefs, with only games at Cincinnati (2-11) and Denver (3-10) left on their schedule. If they win out and the Chiefs lose once, the Chargers win their fifth straight West title.
The Chargers (8-6) shut out the 49ers behind six sacks and an interception until the five-minute mark in the fourth quarter, capping a seven-quarter streak of not allowing an offensive score and just missing the first back-to-back shutouts in the team’s 51-year history.
“We wanted another shutout, and I think that’s where we can get a little better,” cornerback Antoine Cason said. “Keep playing for shutouts and continue to hold them on third-down conversions.”
Nose tackle Antonio Garay was a rock in the middle, helping hold the 49ers to 61 yards on the ground. His stocky size up front allowed linebackers from Ron Rivera’s 3-4 defense to come off the edge and get to quarterback Alex Smith. Linebacker Kevin Burnett led the defense with eight tackles and got his sixth sack of the year.
“This game was big for us. We just couldn’t pull it in,” said 49ers tight end Vernon Davis, who didn’t make his first reception until the closing minutes of the game. “We prepared as much as we could. … But we came here and just couldn’t pull it in."
Smith struggled to get the ball down the field all night, going 19 for 29 for 165 yards with no touchdowns and one interception.
The opening kickoff of the second half was a microcosm of the game.
His team down 17-0, San Francisco’s Ted Ginn raced for a touchdown that was nullified because of a face-mask penalty. The Chargers defense then forced a three-and-out.
On the ensuing drive, Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers led a 14-play, eight-minute touchdown drive. Rivers finished 19 of 25 for 273 yards and three touchdowns, surpassing 4,000 yards for the third straight season and tying Hall of Famer Dan Fouts’ team record set from 1979 to ’81.
Jackson, who didn’t play until Week 12 because of a contract dispute and suspension, finally had the breakout game San Diego fans have been waiting for, reeling in five catches for 112 yards and a career-high three scores. The 6-foot-5, 230-pound Pro Bowl receiver was a mismatch for San Francisco’s “shutdown” corner, Nate Clements, from the outset: Rivers hooked up with Jackson on a 58-yard touchdown on the fourth offensive play of the game.
"He’s seems to be in midseason form, and he certainly showed that tonight," Rivers said of Jackson. "I feel like he has been here for 15 weeks. That’s a credit to how he practices and how all our guys practice."
Chargers coach Norv Turner also was able to control the clock behind rookie running back Ryan Mathews and second-year back Mike Tolbert, who provided a 1-2 punch that created agony for the 49ers. The combination eclipsed the 100-yard mark, with Tolbert punching the ball into the end zone in the third quarter.
And aside from return by Ginn that was called back, the special teams woes that plagued the Chargers in the beginning of the season seem to finally have been corrected, so San Diego fans don’t need to hold their breath each time punter Mike Scifres lines up to kick.
The 49ers fell to 5-9 but still are in the NFC West race. If they win out, they could finish in a three-way tie and still win the NFL’s weakest division — though they could be eliminated if St. Louis beats the Chiefs on Sunday.
"This team has had its highs and lows, but if we are fortunate enough to go to the playoffs, I believe we deserve to go," 49ers coach Mike Singletary said.