Woeful Wests collide at Qualcomm in prime time

This game could only be courtesy of the NFL’s woeful Wests.

Alex Smith’s San Francisco 49ers, only a game out of the NFC

West lead despite being 5-8, and Philip Rivers’ San Diego Chargers,

a game off the pace in the AFC West at 7-6, meet Thursday night at

Qualcomm Stadium.

Each team needs to win out to keep its playoff hopes alive. Then

again, in San Francisco’s case, the NFC West is the NFL’s worst

division with a combined record of 21-31, so perhaps a 7-9 record

would be good enough to win it. The Niners are right behind Seattle

and St. Louis, both 6-7.

Four-time defending division champion San Diego saved its season

with a 31-0 rout of AFC West leader Kansas City, which was playing

without quarterback Matt Cassel, who had an emergency appendectomy

four days earlier. A week before that, the Chargers were outmuscled

by the Oakland Raiders, 28-13.

Rivers tries to look past the mediocrity.

”I don’t know how some people view it. The way I look at it,

obviously, because I’m on one of those teams, I think it just shows

a little bit about this league and how competitive it is, week in

and week out,” Rivers said. ”You have three or four teams that

have way better records than the rest, then you have a bunch of

guys jumbled up within three or four games of one another.

”You look at our games, they could have gone either way,” said

Rivers, whose brilliant play this year hasn’t been matched by the

Chargers’ special teams, whose many blunders contributed to a 2-5

start.

”You look at theirs and they definitely could have gone either

way,” Rivers said, mentioning the 49ers’ close losses at home

against defending Super Bowl champion New Orleans, at NFC South

leader Atlanta and at home to Philadelphia, which shares the NFC

East lead with the New York Giants. Those three losses came during

an 0-5 start.

”I think the way I look at it is two teams that have hung in

there even though they haven’t been able to win some close games,”

Rivers said. ”Fortunately, we both find ourselves in the hunt.

National TV, Thursday night, both of us a game out of our division,

not only is it a playoff game for us, it’s definitely a playoff

game for them. So it’ll be a playoff game.”

The only difference is, January is still a few weeks away.

The Chargers, who’ve already caught breaks when Cassel had

surgery and the Raiders lost at Jacksonville, will finish with

games at Cincinnati (2-11) and Denver (3-10). The 49ers play at St.

Louis before finishing at home with Arizona (4-9).

The Chargers have been maddeningly inconsistent. They were held

to 21 yards rushing in the loss to the Raiders, who piled up 251

yards against the NFL’s top-ranked defense. Against Kansas City,

the Bolts rebounded by rushing for a season-high 207 yards and

holding the Chiefs to just 67 yards total offense.

The 49ers are coming off a 40-21 win against Seattle in which

Smith, who attended Helix High in the San Diego suburb of La Mesa,

returned from a five-game layoff to produce one of the finest

performances of his career.

Smith completed 17 of 27 passes for 255 yards and compiled a

130.9 passer rating, the best for a game in his career. He also

matched his career high with three touchdown passes.

Now he’ll try to keep it going against the team he grew up

watching and one of his many former offensive coordinators, Norv

Turner, the Chargers’ head coach.

”That was great,” Smith said about coming back strong last

week. ”We expect to play the way we did and obviously I had some

success myself. It was a good feeling.”

Smith grew up a fan of the Chargers and San Diego State

Aztecs.

”I remember going to, it was Jack Murphy back then, and

watching a lot of games,” he said. ”Watching Marshall Faulk play.

Watching Stan Humphries and the Chargers play. I don’t know if I

dared to dream that big. Always the odds are against you. But a

dream come true nonetheless.”

Although this is Smith’s first regular-season game against his

hometown Chargers, he’s had success at Qualcomm Stadium before. He

led Helix to two San Diego Section championships and as Utah’s

quarterback threw five touchdown passes in a game against San Diego

State.

”I can definitely, vividly, remember playing there in high

school,” he said. ”Taking the bus there the day of the game and

what it was like in the locker room. Being in those locker rooms as

a high school player and going out on the field and playing at

Qualcomm. And then obviously in college I went there my freshman

year and got to come back my junior year and play there and same

thing. I’m thinking, ‘Wow, I got to come back and play in college.’

It’s surreal and no different now.”

Chargers star tight end Antonio Gates could sit out for the

fourth time in six games due to a painful tear in the plantar

fascia in his right foot. He’s listed as doubtful on the injury

report and will likely be a game-time decision.