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Chargers, Niners still alive for playoff berths
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Take one 7-6 team, match it up with a 5-8 team on national TV and let’s all yawn.
Except the San Francisco-San Diego game Thursday night actually is quite meaningful, even if it pairs mediocre teams in downtrodden divisions.
Although the Chargers are four-time defending champs in the AFC West, they’ve hardly looked like a playoff team for much of this year. Their usual late-season charge, though, has lifted them from 2-5 and they come off a 31-0 romp over division leader Kansas City.
Yardage wise, their defense is ranked first and the offense is No. 2. Their special teams have cost them some games, as has some unimpressive coaching.
Yet a win against San Francisco, a 9-point underdog, and victories in San Diego’s final two games — at awful Cincinnati and Denver — might be enough for a playoff berth.
“I think we’ve put ourselves in a position now, one game back, obviously we understand nothing has changed,” quarterback Philip Rivers said. “We’ve got to go win the rest of them. That’s all we can control. You never know what can happen, not just for the Chiefs, but you never know what can happen in three weeks.”
The 49ers almost certainly need to win out, but the NFC West is so weak that maybe even a 7-9 mark will get them their first division crown since 2002. San Francisco finishes with division mates St. Louis and Arizona.
Alex Smith’s return at quarterback reinvigorated the offense. The pass defense is leaky, certainly not recommended against Rivers, who’s putting up some sensational numbers, even if the wins aren’t always there.
The win will be there Thursday. ... CHARGERS, 31-16

New Orleans (plus 2½) at Baltimore  —
That defense is looking old and gassed at the end of games for the Ravens. Saints are on a six-game tear, albeit against generally mediocre competition. Their now-healthy offense will show no mercy. ... BEST BET and UPSET SPECIAL: SAINTS, 27-21

Atlanta (minus 6½) at Seattle  — Both of these teams usually are dominant at home, which means Seahawks should be the pick, right?
Not even close — Falcons are primed for Super Bowl run, Seattle is struggling in NFL’s worst division. ... FALCONS, 24-10
Jacksonville (plus 5) at Indianapolis — This would be a slam-dunk for Colts in previous years. These aren’t the same Colts, although they should have enough to reclaim the AFC South. ... COLTS, 24-21

N.Y. Jets (plus 5½) at Pittsburgh —
Jets swooning, Steelers surging. This one should be smashmouth all the way and fun to watch. ... STEELERS, 16-9

Philadelphia (plus 3) at N.Y. Giants — For the NFC East lead. Eagles squeezed out a win in last meeting. Now it’s Giants’ turn, although losing WR Steve Smith for the season is damaging. ... GIANTS, 21-20

Detroit (plus 4½) at Tampa Bay —
Lions ended one futile string with first division win in 20 tries by upsetting Aaron Rodgers-less Packers. Unless Josh Freeman goes down, their road woes continue. ... BUCCANEERS, 24-13

Denver (plus 6½) at Oakland  — Although there seems to be nothing left in Denver’s tank, the sight of the Silver and Black on the other side normally gets the Broncos stoked. Not this time. ... RAIDERS, 30-20

Washington (plus 6) at Dallas — Both teams playing out the string, with Cowboys looking to get Jason Garrett the permanent coaching job. That — and more talent — is decisive. ... COWBOYS, 28-20

Houston (plus 1) at Tennessee — Two more teams playing out the schedule in disappointing years that could lead to coaching changes. ... TEXANS, 23-21

Buffalo (plus 6½) at Miami — Dolphins could keep playoff hopes alive right up until their finale at New England. But only if the offense wakes up. ... DOLPHINS, 13-10

Arizona (plus 1½) at Carolina — Panthers could just about clinch first overall draft pick with another loss. Now there’s some incentive. ... CARDINALS, 14-13

Cleveland (plus 1) at Cincinnati —
The, uh, Battle of Ohio. Not even a thumb wrestle. ... BENGALS, 12-10

Kansas City (OFF) at St. Louis —
The, uh, Battle of Missouri. At least this one shows some promise as both teams are in first place, albeit in weak divisions. ... RAMS, 17-16

Green Bay (OFF) at New England —
The way the Patriots are playing, it doesn’t matter if a healthy Aaron Rodgers, Brett Favre in his prime or Bart Starr show up. ... PATRIOTS, 33-13

Chicago (OFF) at Minnesota —
Play this one anywhere in the Midwest and it will be the same outcome. ... BEARS, 20-3

Versus spread:
8-4-4 (overall 109-82-10); Straight up, 11-5 (overall 139-68)

Best Bet: 8-6 against spread, 10-4 straight up.
Upset Special: 8-6 against spread, 8-6 straight up.