With pressure coming on a 3rd and 10, Jimmy Garoppolo slung the ball up the middle of the field to Brandon Aiyuk, who caught it, spun, and split two defenders, heading for the end zone. A Chargers' safety had a hold of Aiyuk's left leg, and Brandon was literally hopping his way the last five yards, dragging the defender on his back toward the goal line, before he fell at the two-yard line, just short of a touchdown.
The score was 16-13, LA, and for me, the play encapsulated last night's scrappy game, with the San Francisco 49ers eking their way past the Los Angeles Chargers.
Immediately after Aiyuk's 25-ish yard catch and run, the 49ers hurried to the line of scrimmage and handed the ball to Christian McCaffrey, who punched it through to make it 19-16 San Francisco with just under eight minutes left in the fourth quarter. (Robbie Gould missed the extra point.) It was the Niners' first lead of the game.
San Francisco would trade possessions with LA — who were still annoyingly within striking distance — before finally adding another field goal in the dying minutes of the game and sailing on to a 22-16 win and a 5-4 record. The Niners have won two in a row, and their prospects for the rest of the season are anyone's guess.
I really have no idea who was favored coming into last night's primetime game. The then 5-3 Chargers are just as unpredictable as the 49ers — both teams tend to lose games they should win, and win games they should lose. (For those of you over 40, you might think of the Niners vs. Chargers as a rematch of Superbowl XXIX (29) in 1995, when Steve Young and San Francisco destroyed the San Diego Chargers 49-26 — but that would be digging deep into a bag of nostalgia.)
The Justin Herbert-led LA Chargers came out swinging last night, marching down field in what would culminate with a 30-yard Herbert touchdown pass. The 49ers responded with a slow, grinding drive, converting a few 3rd downs and getting into the red zone. But Christian McCaffrey was stood up at the goal line on a 3rd and goal, and the Niners settled for a field goal.
The Chargers punted on their next possession and the 49ers were driving at the end of the first quarter when Garoppolo chucked it to Aiyuk for a 15-ish-yard catch, but Brandon fumbled the ball as he was being tackled. That led to a Chargers' field goal (which just barely squeaked through). Score: 10-3 San Die . . . Sorry, LA. (The "Los Angeles Chargers" will never, ever sound right to me.)
A 49ers punt from around their own 35-yard line was blocked at the 10-and-a-half minute mark of the second quarter, leading to another Chargers' trip into the red zone, where San Francisco's "otherwise vanilla" defense (according to The Athletic) stood tall, including a Nick Bosa sack — his 9.5 of the season.
On the 49ers' next possession, Jimmy G hurled a 10-ish-yard pass to George Kittle on a 3rd and 9; it was the Niners' first first down since the first quarter, and a building block of a solid drive. A 10-ish-yard sideline pass to Ray-Ray McCloud took San Francisco into LA territory, and a short Christian McCaffrey reception led to a 1st and goal; on 3rd and goal, Jimmy G followed a wave of red-and-gold jerseys into the end zone for the touchdown. It was 13-10 Chargers with under two minutes left in the second quarter.
Should we talk about linebacker Dre Greenlaw's helmet-to-helmet hit on Justin Herbert in the dying minutes of the first half? No one seems to dispute that it was a penalty, but Greenlaw's ejection was a shock to the 49ers. "It kind of actually blew my mind," said 49er coach Kyle Shanahan of the ejection. "I understand the penalty. But I thought there had to be intent [for an ejection]." Herbert missed the bitter end of the second quarter, and LA tacked on another field goal to make it 16-10 Chargers at the half.
Anyway, back to the game:
"And now the 49ers are doing what many people thought they would do coming in," said NBC announcer Mike Tirico of the Niners' running game to start the third quarter. Christian McCaffrey and Deebo Samuel, with some added grinding by Elijah Mitchell, smashed their way upfield for a long 49ers drive, though they weren't able to score a touchdown once in the red zone, and settled for another field goal and a 16-13 Chargers' lead.
But the 49ers had taken control of the game. After scoring on four of their first six possessions, the Chargers were sleepy and ineffectual in the second half. On a 3rd and 8, Jauan Jennings fought for a key first down at mid-field, Elijah Mitchell had another big run, and we have arrived at that 3rd and 10, where Jimmy G sling it to Brandon Aiyuk, who helped the 49ers hop, hop, hop to victory over the Chargers.
So who wants to make predictions about the rest of the 49ers' season?
With the Seahawks losing to the Buccaneers in Munich, Germany yesterday (yes, you read that sentence correctly), the Niners are one game behind Seattle in the NFC West. San Francisco will face their division rivals, the 4-6 Arizona Cardinals, in Phoenix on Monday night next week.
Top Image: Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images