Everything clicked for the Chargers on Thursday.
Philip Rivers was beyond efficient, connecting on 19-of-25 passes for 273 yards and three touchdowns, all of them to goat-turned-hero Vincent Jackson. Jackson's scores came from an average of 30 yards out, reasserting San Diego's ability to strike from anywhere on the field.
The Chargers' running game showed some bite, as well. Ryan Mathews (56) and Mike Tolbert (46) combined to rumble for more than 100 yards against the No. 3 run defense in the NFC. Tolbert also pounded in his 11th score of the season from 1 yard out on the opening drive of the second half.
The defense played with swagger and preyed on the 49ers, who fell behind early and are not equipped to dig out of a hole. Six defenders recorded sacks: Shaun Phillips, Antwan Barnes, Kevin Burnett, Luis Castillo, Antonio Garay and Cam Thomas. Phillips has 11 sacks on the season and is one away from setting a new career high.
The run defense, while gouged a bit early, responded well. The game's biggest play came when the Chargers stuffed the 49ers on fourth-and-goal from the 6-inch line early in the second quarter. Instead of allowing the 49ers to tie the game, that play ignited a blowout.
San Diego's special teams were mediocre and will need some attention in the 10 days prior to the Week 16 contest in Cincinnati. The 49ers came close to blocking a pair of Chargers punts. Also, San Diego allowed Ted Ginn to return the second-half kickoff 85 yards for a touchdown, although that score was called back on a facemask penalty.
The good news for Steve Crosby's units is that Antoine Cason looks entrenched as the new punt returner. He had a nifty 22-yard return just four days after ripping off a 40-yard return against the Kansas City Chiefs. Darren Sproles has not returned a punt for more than 16 yards all season.
Whether Cason will be returning punts into the postseason is largely in the hands of the St. Louis Rams, who host the AFC West leaders, the Kansas City Chiefs, on Sunday. If the Rams win, the Chargers will control their own path to the division crown. If the Chiefs win, the Chargers will be looking for help and running out of time.
Michael Lombardo is a member of the Pro Football Writers of America and a long-time contributor to the Scout.com network. His analysis has been published by the NFL Network, Fox Sports and MySpace Sports. He has followed the Chargers for more than 15 years and covered the team since 2003. You can see more of his updates by following him on twitter.
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