The Chargers and 49ers need to break slumps to stay in playoff picture
By HUNTER KOSSODO
College Contributor Network
Three weeks ago, it looked like the San Diego Chargers and the San Francisco 49ers were each on their way to making the playoffs for consecutive years in a row. Since Week 6, both teams haven't won any of their combined five games and now the rest of the pack in the AFC and NFC have caught up and are starting to pass by them.
Things aren't looking too bright in California, as both the Chargers and 49ers are in third place in their divisions and are slipping out of the playoff picture.
San Diego has lost in three straight weeks and, after a blazing start, are just one of 11 teams in the AFC with at least five wins.
The Bolts' upcoming bye week is the NFL equivalent of taking a timeout as LeBron James is taking over a game. The Chargers have gotten shelled in their past three games, and they need to regroup over the bye week to get over what's been plaguing them.
If nothing else, the bye week might help them get a little healthier. Just looking at San Diego's injury report lets you know that a lot of the recent problems the Chargers have had are due to not having their best players on the field.
San Diego has suffered losses to their starters at running back, offensive line, defensive line, linebackers and secondary. Against the Dolphins, the Chargers' defense went without three regular starters in Dwight Freeney, Jason Verrett and Manti Te'o as well as backups Jahleel Addae and Jeremiah Attaochu.
The linebacker group was absolutely decimated, the defensive line couldn't get any pressure on Ryan Tannehill and the secondary was picked apart. Tannehill threw for three touchdowns and almost 300 yards before being sat down for the entire fourth quarter.
Philip Rivers on the other hand was terrible. This might be even more disconcerting because the receivers have been just about the only position group on the Chargers to stay healthy and they still couldn't move the ball.
San Diego's wide receivers haven't been able to consistently get open this season, especially Keenan Allen who is going through a rough sophomore slump. Antonio Gates has been the team's best receiver and leading touchdown hauler but Miami shut down Gates and, with Branden Oliver continuing to struggle, the Chargers didn't have enough firepower to make up for their lapses on defense.
Rivers deserves blame as well. He has cooled off significantly after being in the MVP discussion through the first six weeks of the season. He threw two ugly interceptions that brought the Dolphins past midfield and another pick on a jumpball between Allen and Brent Grimes. Rivers also fumbled on his own 11-yard line, the third turnover of the third quarter for him.
Over the past three games, it seems clear that San Diego's receivers aren't a group that makes their quarterback look good, rather they have to rely on a hot hand from Rivers to be dangerous. Allen, Malcom Floyd and Eddie Royal never have shown the ability to take over games this season, as the three have combined for just four games of 80 yards receiving or more.
Rivers put up great numbers with this group regardless, but since Week 6 he is starting to lose his chemistry with his receivers. Rivers has completed just 62 percent of his passes for five touchdowns and five interceptions since posting a 69% completion rate, 15 touchdowns, two interceptions through the first six weeks.
Just about everyone on the Chargers' injury report will have a chance to play after the team's bye week, a welcome sign for a team that has already lost against both teams ahead of them in the division, the Broncos and Chiefs.
They will have to quickly forget about being shut out in Miami and use the bye week to get retooled and refocused because the Chargers need to use their next two games to get some momentum going. Weeks 11 and 12 feature fixtures at home against the currently winless Raiders and the 3-5 Rams.
San Diego needs to win both games or it might require another miracle to make the playoffs like last season. Its last five games include three road games against the Ravens, 49ers and Chiefs as well as hosting the Broncos and Patriots. If San Diego is still on this cold streak by Week 13, it could be a disastrous ending to the season for the Chargers.
When San Diego meets with the 49ers on Week 16, that could very well be a must-win game for both teams to make the playoffs.
San Francisco sits at 4-4 and third place in arguably the toughest division in football. Division rival Arizona is extremely well-rounded and one of just two teams in the NFL with seven wins. The defending champion Seahawks are on a two-game win streak and have gotten their defensive mojo back after a shaky start to the year. Even the last-place Rams have some big wins, including against Seattle and most recently against the 49ers.
It was an ugly game, as most 13-10 games are, that could have gone either way for San Francisco. There was what looked like a clear safety by the 49ers on a field goal return by Tavon Austin that wasn't called and a Colin Kaepernick fumble on a QB-keeper from the one-yard line with two seconds left that would have won San Francisco the game.
This season, Kaepernick has been frightfully average. His 1,956 total passing yards rank 16th in the NFL and his 12 passing touchdowns rank 15th. He's having a season on pace with Tannehill and Ryan Fitzpatrick, not a good look for a franchise that just locked him up for $126 million.
He has been able to keep his turnovers down, outside of his two lost fumbles against the Rams and four giveaways in a loss against the Bears. In an ironic twist, Kaepernick has been playing like what critics said of the quarterback he replaced: a game manager.
But just like with the Chargers, the weapons around the quarterback haven't been up to snuff. Anquan Boldin found himself wide open for a 27-yard touchdown catch and run against St. Louis, but the 34-year old has been the only steady option among the skill positions on offense.
Michael Crabtree has yet to eclipse 50 yards receiving since Week 3 with only one touchdown since then, and, outside of drawing a pass interference call to set up the potential game-winner, didn't do much this week against the Rams. Star tight end Vernon Davis has dealt with lingering injuries and has been invisible all season save for Week 1.
Even the typically ageless Frank Gore is in a slump, averaging just 2.7 yards per attempt his last three games with no scores. The 49ers pride themselves on being able to run the ball behind their strong offensive line, but the O-line has struggled to both run and pass block.
In their last two games against Denver and St. Louis, Kaepernick was sacked 14 times. The Rams came into the game with six sacks on the season and by the end of the first half doubled that amount.
San Francisco is also dealing with missing bodies on defense, especially with their linebackers. Patrick Willis missed the Rams game with a bad toe, and NaVorro Bowman has yet to play a game since tearing his ACL and MCL in the NFC Championship Game last season.
The good news is Willis and Bowman are expected to return from injury sooner rather than later and Aldon Smith will be returning from suspension on Week 11. Cornerback Tramaine Brock should also be coming back from his own toe injury in the coming weeks, bolstering an already strong secondary with Perrish Cox, Chris Culliver and safeties Antoine Bethea and Eric Reid.
When this defense is healthy, they are scary. Even if the cold streak the Niners' offense is going through continues, that defense will be keeping them competitive in the rest of their games.
San Francisco is 1-2 in division games this season, but still has both matchups against the Seahawks and one more against the Cardinals to make up ground against the two teams in front of them in the NFC West.
If Kaepernick and the rest of the offense can bounce back to play at the level that got them to three straight NFC Championship games, there's no reason they can't make it four in a row.
Hunter Kossodo is a junior at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University. He is a rabid supporter of Boston sports having lived there for most of his life. Follow him on Twitter: @HKossodo