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Chargers' thrilling comeback could alter course of playoffs

This is the backstory to one of the great moments of Week 16, the San Diego Chargers' valiant comeback against the San Francisco 49ers to keep their playoff hopes alive. The Chargers' unlikely rally, as well as the Miami Dolphins' thrilling win over the Minnesota Vikings being decided by a safety and Cam Newton's victorious return to push the Carolina Panthers a step closer to the playoffs are nominees for the GMC Never Say Never Moment of the week. Cast your vote for the GMC Never Say Never Moments of Week 16.

The Chargers entered Week 16 riding a two-game losing streak, and the team's playoff ambitions seemed little more than an unattainable or fanciful hope. After going down 21-0 on the road against the 49ers installed even less confidence among those watching the game Saturday night that the Chargers were capable of a run to the postseason. When the night was over, the Chargers executed a comeback that tied a franchise-best. After the events of Week 16 as a whole, the Chargers were in about as good a position as they could have hoped to reach the postseason.

Here are the key moments before the moment:

Bolts backed into hole

The play:49ers safety Antoine Bethea steps in front of a Philip Rivers pass near midfield and returned 49 yards for a touchdown.

The aftermath: Bethea's pick six put San Francisco up 21-0 on San Diego. It was already Rivers' second interception of the game -- Perrish Cox also had picked off Rivers, leading to a 49ers touchdown. Everything seemed to be clicking for the 49ers, who had already been eliminated from playoff contention in the NFC.

49ers fortify lead

The play: The 49ers' Bruce Ellington scores his second touchdown of the game right before the end of the first half to give San Francisco a 28-7 halftime lead.

The aftermath: The Chargersmanaged to get a touchdown following Bethea's pick six, but the 49ers continued to relentlessly push the Chargers to the brink of playoff elimination.

Chargers turn the tide

The play:Corey Liuget pounces on a loose ball in the end zone after a sack by Dwight Freeney and Ricardo Mathews knocked the ball out of the hands of Colin Kaepernick.

The aftermath: The Chargers had trimmed the 49ers' lead to 28-21 after the Liuget fumble recovery touchdown, which followed up a Rivers-to-Antonio Gates touchdown play on the previous drive. The Chargers' surge of momentum was snatched away in an instant. Just two plays after the Chargers' score, Kaepernick scrambled 90 yards for a touchdown that gave the 49ers a 35-21 lead. Moments later, Rivers was picked off for a third time and the fourth quarter started with the 49ers holding a two-touchdown advantage.

Rivers rebounds in epic fashion

The play: Rivers connects with receiver Malcom Floyd for an 11-yard touchdown play with just 29 seconds remaining in the game to tie the score at 35-35.

The aftermath: After throwing a second touchdown pass to Gates with five minutes remaining in the game, the Chargers defense held the 49ers offense to a four-and-out sequence. With three and a half minutes to work with, Rivers went to work. The Chargers' quarterback converted two fourth-and-long situations -- a fourth-and-8 pass to Eddie Royal went for 17 yards and a fourth-and-10 pass to receiver Dontrelle Inman also went for 17 yards. Inman's grab put the Chargers at the 49ers' 9-yard line. After a loss of two yards on a sack, Rivers found Floyd for the game-tying touchdown that completed the dramatic comeback. Getting to overtime was not without adventure, as 49ers kicker Phil Dawson attempted a 60-yard field goal as time expired, but the attempt fell well short of the uprights.

The moment

The play: Kicker Nick Novak boots a 40-yard field goal to provide the winning points in a 38-35 overtime triumph for the Chargers over the 49ers.

The aftermath: Safety Eric Weddle put the Chargers in position to pull off the incredible victory by forcing a 49ers fumble on the second play of overtime. The Chargers conservatively maneuvered the ball into position for Novak's winning kick.

The Chargers tied a team record for the largest comeback win in team history, matching a 21-point comeback against the Seattle Seahawks in 1983 and another 21-point comeback against the Cincinnati Bengals in 2006.

While the 1957 playoff loss to the Detroit Lionsremains the gold standard of blown leads in 49ers history, it isn't the biggest one -- in terms of points -- surrendered by San Francisco. The 21-point lead that was blown against the Chargers ranks as the third-biggest given up in 49ers history, behind a 25-point blown lead against the Minnesota Vikings in 1977 and a 23-point lead blown against the Phoenix Cardinals in 1988.

The edge-of-your-seat rally by the Chargers might turn out to be one of those profound late-season events that alters the course of the playoffs. Events that transpired the day after the Chargers' thrilling win put San Diego into an advantageous position of not needing any help to reach the postseason. The Chargers only need a win over the Kansas City Chiefs in Week 17 to earn that playoff berth.

Follow Jim Reineking on Twitter @jimreineking.

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