Was this going to be a game where the 49ers lied down and perished on their dying turf, causing their draft position to soar while their fans’ hearts sank? Or was this going to be a game that was even more frustrating than their last home defeat, a display of the kind of playmaking ability we thought we’d see throughout this season in games that mattered?
How about both?
It looked like the latter early on, when Frank Gore broke multiple tackles and rumbled his way down the left sideline for a 52-yard touchdown run. The rushing attack dominated the first half, as Gore powered past the 100-yard mark on the second play of the second quarter, and the 49ers went into the locker room with a 28-7 lead at halftime.
The 49ers would lose that lead, as the Chargers sent the game to overtime with a touchdown in the final minute. After Quinton Patton negated the only good play he’s made all season by fumbling after a 20-yard run (the Chargers recovered at their own 38-yard line), San Diego drove for the game-winning field goal.
Chargers 38, 49ers 35, and the 49ers are guaranteed their first non-winning season since 2010.
“This season’s frustrating,” said Joe Staley. “We’ve had losing seasons and stuff. But with the success we’ve had in the past, it’s been weird.”
It looked like the 49ers were going to barely avoid a disastrous collapse. Philip Rivers threw a one-yard touchdown pass to Antonio Gates in the third quarter to bring San Diego within two scores. On the ensuing possession, Colin Kaepernick hit Vernon Davis in stride as he was streaking across the middle of the field. Davis raced down the left sideline and made a nifty move to score on what would’ve been a 63-yard touchdown reception, but the 49ers committed two penalties on the play (Anthony Davis’ illegal formation was declined, due to Frank Gore’s 15-yard chop block).
Kaepernick was sacked and fumbled the ball away on the very next play, and the Chargers recovered in the end zone for a touchdown. That play turned what had started to look like an eventual blowout victory against a reeling San Diego squad into a tenuous 28-21 lead for the 49ers. The Chargers kicked off, and Perrish Cox ran the ball out of bounds at the 49ers’ six-yard line.
Visions of Jed York and Cass Baalke, eating turkey and tweeting at midfield after another Levi’s embarrassment, suddenly filled my mind.
But after a lost season full of frustrating losses and meager offensive outputs, the 49ers were finally able to break out in ways that, as recently as Saturday afternoon, appeared to be buried in the past. After Vernon Davis showed a glimpse of what made him the 49ers’ most dangerous receiving weapon for several years, Kaepernick streaked past everyone for a 90-yard touchdown run.
There was a flag on the field that fell near where Kaepernick rushed by, and even as he commiserated with fans behind the end zone, he seemed resigned to the fact that his best play of the season would be called back. But no! The Chargers were penalized for illegal contact, the touchdown stood, and Kaepernick ran back toward the end zone and kissed his bicep for the first time since Jan. 12 in Charlotte.
In a five-play stretch, we saw everything awful, great and maddening about this team. Soul-squashing penalties. Vernon coming back to life. Kaepernick getting pressured and losing the ball at the worst possible place, then doing his best Usain Bolt impression a couple minutes later.
Gore rushed for 158 yards. Kaepernick rushed for 151, the first time he’s gone over 100 yards in a regular season game. His touchdown run was the second-longest in history, behind Garrison Hearst’s 96-yard run against the Jets 16 years ago. The 49ers rushed for 355 yards as a team, what I’m hearing is the largest total ever for a losing squad.
Losses come in all shapes and sizes, as the 49ers have learned this season.
Niners notes and quotes
— The 49ers and Chargers both committed three turnovers, but the 49ers’ turnovers were far worse. There were the fumbles mentioned earlier by Kaepernick (which led to an immediate Chargers touchdown) and Osgood (which led to the loss a little while later). Bruce Miller also lost a fumble at the San Diego two-yard line when the 49ers were ahead 7-0 and rolling.
— What was different about the offense in this game? How were the 49ers able to put their stamp on this game as a running team early on, after failing in that area so many times this season?
“My o-line was there,” Gore said. “All year, we missed one guy here, one guy there. I think that’s the problem. Our o-line dominated.”
— We know what was the same … they didn’t score in the fourth quarter. Again.
— “It’s been a tough year for our team. It started in camp, just injuries after injuries. It’s hard to win when you don’t have your top guys,” said Gore. “We’re still fighting as a team. That’s all we can do now.”
— Gore thought the game was over when Kaepernick broke off that long touchdown run. “I’m happy for Kap. He looked like his self.”
— Jim Harbaugh looked pretty down in the dumps after this game. No surprise there. The 49ers should’ve won this game by at least 14.
— Gore on the chop-block that negated Vernon’s touchdown: “I should’ve just stayed up. I was just attacking my gap. I know on certain defenses, my coach tells me — they did a pick-four, and I know I had to loop. I guess Boone may have went out to the right, he came back and tried to help. I should’ve just stayed up … it was a chop-block tonight. I wish I would’ve stayed up. It would’ve been a touchdown.”
— Bruce Ellington left the game with a hamstring injury (a LOT of players left this game with injuries), but not before he caught a touchdown pass and ran for one as well. One would have to think he’ll be looking at an expanded role next season. After the game, he had an ice pack on his right leg. He didn’t seem to think the injury was serious, but he needed Vern Glenn’s help sliding his Air Jordan on his right foot.
— There is nothing more frustrating or hilarious in the NFL than listening to Jeff Triplette describe a penalty.
— The 49ers picked Rivers off three times. Antoine Bethea took it to the house in the first quarter, the first touchdown of his career. Bethea has had a nice year, but he surely expected that this season would last a little longer. We all did, I guess.
— Eric Reid left the game with a concussion, and Craig Dahl REALLY struggled, whiffing on at least two tackles he should’ve made. Oh well, the 49ers have had to go to their backups at every defensive position this year, and safety is the one area where that can’t happen.
— We thought coverage could be a problem before the season started, considering all the defensive backs they lost. The defense held strong until the second half tonight, when Rivers was able to convert whenever he needed to. He ended up with 356 passing yards and four touchdowns.
— It’s difficult to judge the play of certain individuals during a game unless they make crazy-good plays or massive screw-ups, but it seemed pretty obvious that Dan Skuta (who sacked Philip Rivers on 3rd-and-2 during the Chargers’ final play, forcing a fumble that the Chargers recovered) played a strong game.
— That goes for Quinton Dial, as well. Skuta and Dial had the 49ers’ only two sacks on the night. Aldon Smith left the game briefly with a head injury, but he was nonexistent throughout most of the game.
— Staley was angry after getting called for a personal foul on Kaepernick’s lost fumble. LOLKNBR got a GIF of the scene on the sideline, where it looked like Staley might have been upset at Harbaugh. Staley maintained after the game that his ire was directed toward the official who threw the flag, however.