For different reasons, the San Diego Chargers and San Francisco 49ers are surprisingly one game out of first place in their respective divisions. One of them is about to see those title hopes take a major hit.
Fresh off victories against division leaders, the Chargers and 49ers will try to continue their momentum and improve their playoff odds when they meet at Qualcomm Stadium on Thursday night.
San Diego (7-6) and San Francisco (5-8) entered the season as favorites to win the AFC and NFC West, respectively. Both teams remain in contention with three games to play, but they've needed to overcome poor starts.
The four-time reigning AFC West champion Chargers opened 2-5 but have won five of six following Sunday's 31-0 victory over first-place Kansas City, pulling within one game of the Chiefs.
The Chargers' final two games will be visits to Cincinnati and Denver, which have combined for five wins.
"For me, that game doesn't mean anything if we don't go win Thursday," quarterback Philip Rivers said. "To me, that's the way each one of these games is going to be once we win them, then it's going to become a moot point if we don't go win the next game.
"I think we've put ourselves in a position now, one game back, obviously we understand nothing has changed. We've got to go win the rest of them. That's all we can control. You never know what can happen ... in three weeks."
The 49ers find themselves in a familiar position after beating Seattle 40-21 on Sunday to win for the fifth time in eight games and move one game back of the Seahawks and St. Louis in the division. The strong stretch has helped San Francisco move past an 0-5 start after showing major promise with a .500 finish last season.
The 49ers visit the Rams next week before hosting Arizona in the regular-season finale.
"We're one game out of first," linebacker Travis LaBoy said. "All we can do is focus on the next game and try to keep knocking down the W's. Hopefully we can get some help down the road from other teams losing and rewriting that playoff picture."
Another strong effort from Alex Smith could get the Niners closer to their first division title since 2002. He finished with a career-high 130.9 passer rating Sunday while completing 17 of 27 passes for 255 yards and three touchdowns to lead San Francisco to its best scoring performance of the season.
Smith, who missed the previous five games with a shoulder injury, has struggled to live up to the hype of being the top draft pick in 2005. He's scheduled to be a free agent in the offseason, and remaining in San Francisco might be unlikely.
"I'm not thinking about any of that (future) stuff, to be honest with you. We're a game back in the division and we're playing one of the best football teams in the NFL," Smith said. "Our backs are up against the wall and it's a short week, short turnaround. So I'm excited, and I think everyone is."
Facing the top-ranked defense in the NFL will likely be a much stiffer task for Smith.
San Diego allows a league-low 265.0 yards per game while giving up the fewest through the air at 173.4. The defense is also tied for third with Oakland at 38 sacks, one less than Pittsburgh and the New York Giants.
The Chargers collected four sacks against the Chiefs while holding them to 67 yards - 19 passing - for the second-fewest allowed in team history.
"As long as we take care of our business, they won't put 40 up on us," said cornerback Antoine Cason, San Diego's leader with four interceptions. "I truly believe that. For us to be a confident team like we are, we need to prepare like we always have during this short week. If we take care of our business, we're going to be fine."
Rivers has a 106.0 passer rating at Qualcomm Stadium, and his 15 touchdown passes are one back of New Orleans' Drew Brees for the league lead at home. He's also tossed seven picks, with one coming in each of the last five home games.
Rivers will now contend with a 49ers defense that collected a season-high four interceptions last weekend, returning one for a score.
San Diego has won the last two meetings with San Francisco, including 20-17 in overtime at home in November 2002.