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Week 16 Grades: The Miracle of Santa Clara

Staring into the abyss of a 28-7 halftime deficit, a hobbled QB, and a defense hemorrhaging rushing yards, the Chargers stage one of the great comebacks in franchise history and steal a win from the San Francisco 49ers to remain alive in the playoff race.

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Quarterbacks: B minus

Philip Rivers' completed 33 of 54 pass attempts (61.1%) for 356 yards (6.59 YPA), with 4 touchdowns and 3 interceptions.

Of the three interceptions, the first two were simply bad choices. The first interception was an under-thrown ball up the sideline towards a covered Seyi Ajirotutu. The second was a forced throw to Antonio Gates which resulted in a pick-6; Rivers eyeballed Gates from the moment the ball was snapped. The third interception, however, was the result of being hit low during the throw, resulting in a sailed pass.

Now, let's get to the good. The touchdown pass to Eddie Royal was a sensational touch pass which could not have been delivered better had Rivers handed him the ball. The three 4th-down conversions were good reads and great throws, 2 of them happening on the game-tying drive. His fourth touchdown pass to Malcom Floyd was positioned perfectly between the cornerback and the safety in the end zone.

Furthermore, considering Rivers was playing with a bulging disk in his back, was missing Keenan Allen this week, and lost two offensive linemen during the game, the perseverance and grit Rivers displayed in rallying this team to win elevates this performance to his top 2-or-3 most memorable games.

Running Backs: B minus

Branden Oliver had a better time running the ball than he has in the last few games. Oliver finished with 53 yards on 13 carries (4.1 YPC), and also gained 28 yards on 3 catches (5 targets). Oliver's blocking was decent, although he gave up too much ground on the play which resulted in Rivers' third interception.

Donald Brown added 12 yards on 4 carries (3 YPC), and only gained 4 yards on 1 catch (3 targets). What stands out though is the one killer drop on a perfectly thrown pass down the sideline.

Amusingly, the most effective player was RB Ronnie Brown, who gained 33 yards on 7 carries (4.7 YPC), most of which occurred in OT, along with 1 catch for 9 yards on (3 targets). Brown showed some nice patience on his draw runs, along with some nice agility in open space.

Receivers: B

Eddie Royal had maybe his best game in a Chargers uniform, finishing with 10 catches for 94 yards (12 targets) including 1 touchdown and a few terrific diving catches. Two of his catches occurred on 4th down to keep Chargers scoring drives alive.

The game also saw the debut of Dontrelle Inman, who made 7 catches for 79 yards (9 targets), all in the second half. Inman also extended the final scoring drive with a 4th-down reception of his own. Malcom Floyd added 4 catches for 50 yards (10 targets) and a touchdown. Seyi Ajirotutu struggled badly as a starter, with no catches on 3 targets.

Antonio Gates had a strong second half, finishing the game with 7 catches for 92 yards (9 targets), including 2 touchdown receptions. As blockers, Gates struggled more than most, but some better blocking was turned in by Ladarius Green, David Johnson and John Phillips in the first half of the game.

Offensive Line: B minus

The offensive line posted its second straight decent outing. The best outing came from RT D.J. Fluker, who held up very well against OLB Aldon Smith, only allowing a pressure or two, and avoiding any penalties.

LT King Dunlap also had a solid game, often facing either Aldon or Justin Smith. His one allowed sack and fumble of Rivers late by DT Dan Skuta came after the play broke down. Inside, LG Chad Rinehart was often part of a double team against Justin Smith and held up very well both when double-teaming or blocking man-for-man.

Inside, this was a tough day for C Chris Watt and RG Johnnie Troutman, who both left the game with injuries. Watt struggled on a couple of run blocks before being hurt, while Troutman played fairly well inside before his departure. The Chargers, fortunately, got strong relief efforts from C Trevor Robinson and reserve OL Jeremiah Sirles, who both played well. The 2nd sack on Rivers was allowed by Robinson's man, but also after the play broke down.

Defensive Line: F

The 49ers rushed for 355 yards. That cannot happen without dominance from the 49ers offensive line.

DE Corey Liuget was the only player in this group who even came close to holding up, and even he struggled early in the game to fight off double teams and avoid getting run out of plays. Liuget finished up with 2 tackles, 1 for loss, and recovered 2 fumbles, one for a touchdown. DE Kendall Reyes saw a lot of playing time with the 49ers' run-heavy offense, and they attacked his side often, washing him out or run blocking him out of the play completely. Reyes posted 2 combined tackles.

Inside DT Sean Lissemore rarely commanded a double team, and often allowed his man to beat him and get to the second level, and he finished with 3 combined tackles. The only other redeeming play from the defensive line came from DT Ricardo Mathews, who shared a sack with OLB Dwight Freeney, and forced a fumble on QB Colin Kaepernick, resulting in Liuget's TD recovery. Mathews posted 2 combined tackles, and DT Tenny Palepoi added 1 tackle.

Linebackers: D plus

I'll allow that the LBs often were fighting to get off blocks from the 49ers offensive line, but on the whole (with one exception), the tackling was terrible all around.

ILB Manti Teo had the best overall game of any the linebackers. He finished with 11 combined tackles and 1 QB sack to stop Kaepernick on a 4th down play. He was also very strong in pass coverage. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for ILB Kavell Conner, who finished with 4 combined tackles, missed probably just as many, and was lost in zone defense.

As stated above, Freeney got in on Kaepernick for a half-sack, and otherwise posted 1 tackle, as he struggled to beat LT Joe Staley; some of his wide rushes created scramble lanes. OLB Jarret Johnson uncharacteristically had a tough time fighting off blocks early, but got much better as the game progressed; the 49ers often ran away from him after the first quarter. He finished with 3 combined tackles. OLB Jeremiah Attaochu finished with only 1 tackle and no impact rushes. OLB Melvin Ingram's run of quality games came to a crashing halt: he finished with 3 tackles, but missed about 2-3 others, and extended a 49ers scoring drive with a terrible late hit out-of-bounds on Kaepernick.

Secondary: C plus

The secondary also had issues with tackling, but heir negative efforts lasted mostly only until the first quarter ended.

CB Brandon Flowers was not really tested in this game, as he was beaten for receptions a couple of times by WR Anquan Boldin, but no big plays allowed. Flowers ended up with 4 tackles. On the opposite side, CB Shareece Wright played decently until his injury, finishing with 3 tackles. He was replaced by CB Steve Williams, who had a solid game in pass defense: 2 passes defensed to go with 3 tackles, and an unfortunate (phantom, in fact) defensive interference penalty.

FS Eric Weddle's biggest weakness is his size and lack of top end speed - both were exposed a bit by the physical 49ers run blockers as Weddle couldn't disengage to stop RB Frank Gore's long touchdown run, nor could he stop the hyper-athletic Kaepernick on his 90-yard touchdown run. That said, his forced fumble in overtime gave the Chargers possession, needing only a FG to win. He also made a heady play early by preventing Boldin from recovering a fumble forced by SS Marcus Gilchrist, saving another 49ers score. Weddle finished with 9 combined tackles, while Gilchrist finished with 6 and 1 tackle for loss.

Special Teams: C

Nick Novak rebounded from his disastrous effort against Denver by converting 5 extra points and the game-winning field goal in overtime from 40 yards out. Unfortunately, his kickoffs were a serious issue again, as he forced no touchbacks, which allowed the 49ers to gain consistently-solid field position.

Tackling and lane responsibility has fallen off the last several weeks, as the 49ers' Perrish Cox nearly killed the comeback effort with a long 4th-quarter return. P Mat McBriar did a solid job in place of Scifres, with 4 punts resulting in a 50.3 avg, but failed to place any inside the 20, and he did have 1 touchback. PR Eddie Royal never had a return opportunity against P Andy Lee's long hang time, but KR Chris Davis averaged 26.5 yards on 4 returns, with a long of 35.

Coaching: C minus

Head Coach Mike McCoy again found himself in the middle of a couple questionable game management decisions.

First was his decision to carry 2 timeouts to halftime, instead of trying to generate an extra possession when trailing by 14 in a must-win game. Secondly, there was no reason not to place Chris Davis in the end zone when 49ers PK Phil Dawson attempted a 60 yard field goal at the end of regulation. Davis would have had a return opportunity, as the kick was wide right, and short, he would have had a running start.

Offensive Coordinator Frank Reich needs to use the hurry up more often. Period. The offense gets into a good rhythm, plays with more energy, and is able to repeatedly exploit mismatches in the defense. What I did like was some variation with the running back pass routes: a couple of screens were called, along with some wheel routes. And the decision to substitute Inman for Ajirotutu was definitely the right decision.

Defensive Coordinator John Pagano was extremely passive in his play calling; he rarely blitzed and relied heavily on zone defense - which the 49ers chewed to shreds with their physical running game and Kaepernick's scrambling ability. The defensive staff did a poor job getting players not to go too aggressively after Kaepernick, which created easy running lanes on multiple occasions.

5 Biggest Hidden (i.e. non-scoring, non-turnover) Plays:

  1. 0:54 left in the 4th Quarter. Chargers 4th and 10 at SF 26. Rivers converts his second 4th down on the drive, this time to Inman for a 17-yard gain and 1st and Goal at the 49ers' 9. Floyd scores the tying touchdown 2 plays later.
  2. 1:35 left in the 4th Quarter. Chargers 4th and 8 at the SF 43. Rivers completes to Royal on a great throw and catch for 17 yards and a 1st down to extend the drive. Floyd scores the tying TD 6 plays later.
  3. 3:48 left in the 3rd Quarter. 49ers 3rd and 5 at SF 37. Kaepernick hits Vernon Davis for an apparent 63 yards catch and run TD, but the play is called back due to a chop block penalty against RB Frank Gore. In the next play, Freeney and Mathews strip sack Kapernick, resulting in Liuget's recovery for a TD. Instead of 35-14 SF, its 28-21 SF.
  4. 7:15 left in the 3rd Quarter. Chargers 4th and 5 at the SF 25. Rivers converts his 1st of 3 4th downs with a 20 yard completion to Royal, setting up a Chargers TD to cut SF's lead to 14.
  5. 0:27 left in the 2nd Quarter. 49ers 3rd and Goal at the SD 6. Kaepernick throws incomplete, but Melvin Ingram's personal foul extends the drive. Instead of a FG and 24-7 halftime lead, the 49ers score a TD 4 plays later for a 28-7 lead.

Looking Ahead To:

Week 17 at Arrowhead, with all the chips on the table.