At the end of San Diego's 34-7 home win, neither the Chargers -- who looked like the best team in the league -- nor the 49ers -- who resembled the league's worst team -- were eliminated from playoff contention.
The Chargers? Well, that one we can understand. But the 49ers, with nine losses? Sad but true: The 49ers could win their final two games and still win the division by virtue of a 5-1 record (though if both St. Louis and Seattle win on Sunday, the 49ers will be officially eliminated and angels will rejoice). It's stomach-churning to think of San Francisco hosting a playoff game while a team like Green Bay or Tampa Bay may have to stay home. But that's the reality of the inept NFC West.
So what did we learn Thursday night?
1. The Chargers are doing their usual December "we're the scariest team in the league" thing. They're now 8-6 and have won three of four, outscoring their opponents in the three wins by 101-21. The Chargers are 20-1 in the month of December since 2007 (the lone loss was a complete undressing on their home field by the Raiders). If the Chargers win out and Chiefs lose one of their next three games, the Chargers will take the AFC West. What happens after that is anybody's guess. Their slow starts are baffling, but the Chargers' December entertainment value is amazing.
2. We learned the real reason behind this year's slow start: It isn't just habit. Vincent Jackson, a supremely talented wide receiver, made it clear what the Chargers have been missing all season. Jackson scored touchdowns of 58, 11 and 21 yards, exploiting the weak mismatches the 49ers defense offered up. Jackson missed almost all of the first 12 games -- first in a lengthy contract dispute, then in a league-mandated suspension because of previous DUIs, and then with a calf injury suffered in a brief appearance against Indianapolis. Maybe if Philip Rivers had been throwing to Jackson all season, the Chargers would be in a different position.
3. Most people are ready -- and rightly so -- to anoint Tom Brady MVP.But Rivers is definitely in the conversation. Rivers has thrown 29 touchdowns and just 11 interceptions this season, while carrying the league's second-ranked offense without key weapons for long stretches (Antonio Gates was sidelined again). He threw darts on Thursday night, racking up 273 yards and three touchdowns. Rivers, who surpassed 4,000 yards passing for the third straight season, has a quarterback rating of 103.1, right behind MVP favorites Brady and Michael Vick.
4. Matt Cassel was the most important player not playing in Thursday's game. Cassel, the Chiefs QB who underwent an emergency appendectomy last week, was back at practice this week but his status for Sunday's game in St. Louis is uncertain. And that status could have a huge impact on both the Chargers and 49ers. Without Cassel, the Chiefs looked helpless against the Chargers last weekend. If he can't play and the Chiefs lose to the Rams, the Chargers will be in the drivers' seat in the AFC West and the 49ers will be closer to elimination in the NFC West. The 49ers are sending Get Well Soon cards; the Chargers are googling WebMD for cautionary tales of rushing back too soon.
5. Hey America, this was the real 49ers team. The 49ers have played respectably well in their other two nationally televised appearances -- a close Monday night loss to the reigning Super Bowl champion Saints in September and a road trouncing of an uninterested Arizona team last month. But Thursday's 49ers team -- mistake-riddled, lacking judgment, poorly coached, defensively suspect, offensively ineffective -- was the one that has been showing up most of the season. These 49ers are the ones quite deserving of their nine losses and five wins against only teams with losing records. There has been no tangible improvement or coaching evolution. Coach Mike Singletary -- who is deservedly on the hot seat -- continues to call his team "young," but it's really not. And some of the oldest players, like 10-year veteran Justin Smith who was tossed out of the game for shoving a referee, have made some of the biggest blunders.
And despite looking lifeless in San Diego, the 49ers, astonishingly, aren't dead yet.