For the first time since Jim Harbaugh became their head coach in 2011, the San Francisco 49ers played a meaningless December game in which they had no shot at the playoffs. Eliminated by virtue of their loss to the Seattle Seahawks last Sunday, Harbaugh's team started off strong at home against the San Diego Chargers on Saturday night, playing as if it had nothing to lose, racking up 355 total rushing yards and reverting to the power ground game that had defined it over the last four seasons. The 49ers had a 28-7 halftime lead, and looked for all the world as if they, and not the San Diego Chargers, still had a postseason chance to fight for.
And in the end, it still wasn't enough. The 9-6 Chargers fought back, tying the game at 35-all at the end of regulation, and winning on a Nick Novak 40-yard field goal with 10:06 left in overtime. The Chargers now must win next Sunday against the Kansas City Chiefs, and hope for a loss by the Baltimore Ravens in their final two games. Even so, San Diego maintained that chance of a playoff spot, even if it doesn't control its own destiny at this point.
"We said at halftime -- we don't know if we can win this thing, but we're going to fight like crazy," Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers said after the game.
The Chargers had to fight in part due to Rivers' three interceptions -- one was returned by safety Antoine Bethea for a 49-yard touchdown with 10:20 left in the first half. But he was masterful when it counted, completing 13 of 23 passes for 171 yards and two touchdowns in the fourth quarter alone. The final scoring drive in regulation forced Rivers to convert a fourth-and-8 and a fourth-and-10, and he did both, leading his team on a 14-play, 80-yard drive that ended with an 11-yard touchdown pass to Malcom Floyd with 32 seconds remaining in regulation.
And the 49ers, who seemed to have this game on lock through most of it, let it all slip away in what seemed to be a microcosm of their season. It was the second time in the history of the franchise that the 49ers allowed a team to win down by 21 or more points at the half. The last time, it was the Minnesota Vikings who did it, and that happened in 1965. San Francisco put up the most rushing yards in a single game in the history of the team, and had the first two players to rush over 100 yards in a single game since 1977. Running back Frank Gore had 158 yards on 26 carries, and quarterback Colin Kaepernick added 151 yards on just seven carries, including a 90-yard touchdown run with 3:26 left in the third quarter.
The Chargers were missing two primary playmakers in running back Ryan Mathews and receiver Keenan Allen, and Rivers was fighting through multiple injuries, but in the end, the team with more to lose played like it knew it desperately needed a win.
"You've got to let it rip at that point -- pick a guy and let it go," Rivers said of that final regulation drive. "Eddie made a great diving catch... it was an awesome team win. It's playoff football. We said that this was the first round of the playoffs, and we won the first round. We have a long way to go, though."
As for the 49ers and Harbaugh, who looks more and more as if his time in the Bay Area will come to an end no matter what happens next Sunday against the Arizona Cardinals, it was one more frustration added to a long list of them. The relationship between Harbaugh and general manager Trent Baalke has been fractious for a while, the team has 16 players on injured reserve, and for all his athletic ability, Kaepernick still has some fairly serious issues as a quarterback. Harbaugh had no problem summing it all up after the fact.
"Right now there's not much to say," he said. "That's a tough one."
For the 49ers, things could get a lot tougher in the offseason.