The holiday season doesn't truly arrive until we get some free Saturday NFL football. In this week before Christmas, we get a doubleheader to enjoy with playoff implications in each contest.
Here's what to watch for in the latter matchup of Saturday's two games:
- Both of these teams are limping to the end of the season. Let's start with the 49ers. San Francisco lost their dynamic rookie linebacker Chris Borland to an ankle injury. Defensive lineman Ray McDonald was released after more legal troubles this week. Carlos Hyde, Stevie Johnson, and cornerback Tramaine Brock all didn't practice during the week.
- San Diego, meanwhile, has a franchise quarterback who is clearly hurting. Philip Rivers has a back injury that kept him out of practice Wednesday, but he returned Thursday and is fully expected to start. Running back Ryan Mathews is hurting and will miss another game, as will wide receiver Keenan Allen, who broke his collarbone in Week 15. Tight end Ladarius Green and defensive tackle Corey Liuget are also hurt. The winner on Saturday night could largely come down to who is available.
- There is no denying the Chargers' offense has rapidly diminished of late. They scored all of two touchdowns combined the last two weeks against Denver and New England. The running game has vanished without Mathews in the lineup. Rivers is only taking checkdown passes, which could partly be injury related. He knows he can't take a hit right now.
- San Diego's defense has been more consistent overall lately than the offense, except for their performance in Baltimore. The defense has essentially scored 10 points the last two weeks with turnovers, barely less than the offense. They are just a different team when Melvin Ingram is in the lineup. The 49ers' offensive line has not held up well of late, especially in pass protection.
- With Hyde looking unlikely to play, Gore will carry the load for the 49ers. He is finishing this season strong, and has looked like he has fresh legs the last two weeks. He knows he's playing for a free agent contract.
- The 49ers have nothing to play for, but we have a sneaky suspicion they have one great effort left in them for Jim Harbaugh. The Chargers, 8-6, can't afford another loss in the wild-card race. But this is a team that has been taking on water since its 5-1 start, and we think their season will essentially end Saturday night.