Chargers 20, 49ers 17
With all those red jerseys up in the seats, with all that boisterous cheering directed toward the visitors from up the coast, the San Francisco 49ers had all the advantages of playing what amounted to an extra home game today. And yet, the San Diego Chargers, seemingly interlopers in their own stadium, somehow summoned all the right stuff to force an improbable overtime in a game they eventually won, 20-17, on Steve Christie's 40-yard field goal with 4 minutes 11 seconds remaining in the extra session.
The 49ers had a 10-point advantage with 6:38 left in regulation, but were unable to hold off a desperate Chargers team trying to avoid a third straight loss after becoming the major surprise team of the season's first half under first-year head coach Marty Schottenheimer. In the end, they were done in by erratic place kicker Jose Cortez, who missed a 41-yarder wide right in overtime to give the Chargers new life.
"All I can say to you is this," an emotional Schottenheimer said a few minutes after the final gun had sounded. "That locker room is filled with a helluva group of young men. If there was ever any question about their heart, it has certainly just been dispelled."
If there were any questions about second-year man Drew Brees's ability to be the Chargers' quarterback of the future, they also were dispelled by the final quarter rally he staged to get the game into overtime, and the critical big passes he completed on the final drive to set up Christie's eighth career game-winning field goal.
"I've been there before," said Christie, 35, who had a 44-yard kick blocked at the end of the first half. "You just try to keep it simple. I haven't been nervous about a kick since my rookie year. I just want to get a good stroke on the ball and let it happen."
That kick enabled the Chargers to stay tied for the AFC West lead with the Denver Broncos, both now 7-3. The 49ers fell to 7-3, still the only team in the NFC West with a winning record.
Brees showed his mettle in leading a game-saving 58-yard touchdown drive late in the fourth quarter. He was facing a fourth and three at the 49ers 15 when he dropped back to pass, pursued by defensive end Chike Okeafor.
Brees managed to avoid the lineman, stumbled momentarily, then rose up to throw a seven-yard completion to free-lancing wide receiver Tim Dwight for a vital first down at the 49ers 8 to keep the drive alive. A third-and-eight pass intended for Reche Caldwell in the end zone was overthrown, but only because corner Mike Rumph had a death grip on Caldwell's shirt, preventing him from jumping for the ball and resulting in a pass interference flag.
Two plays later on second and goal from the one, Brees executed a gorgeous play fake to LaDainian Tomlinson, allowing fullback Fred McCrary to slip out of the backfield and get himself wide open for a touchdown pass.
Christie's extra point tied it at 17, and when Rodney Harrison intercepted Jeff Garcia's Hail Mary pass in back of the end zone, the season's 15th overtime game was soon to follow.
The Chargers won the toss, a good sign because overtime winners have an 11-3-1 record this year, then botched the opportunity when Brees threw three straight incomplete passes.
The 49ers got the ball, and did everything right until they put the ball, and the game, on the right foot of Cortez. He'd been cut twice by the Chargers in the 1990s and almost botched a win against the Oakland Raiders two weeks ago when he missed a short kick, only to redeem himself with a winning kick in overtime. This time, there was no chance for redemption.
The Chargers' final overtime drive included a critical third-and-eight pass from Brees to Dwight that gained 19 yards to the 49ers 48. Two plays later, the game's unlikeliest hero emerged.
Wide receiver Eric Parker had started the season on the Chargers' practice squad as an undrafted free agent from Tennessee. He was added to the roster after the third game, mostly to play on special teams. But, on second and eight at the 49ers 46, he was on the field essentially to give starter Curtis Conway a breather for a play.
The 49ers were in a two-deep zone, and Parker managed to find a seam and hang on to a perfectly thrown Brees pass for an 18-yard gain to the 28, well within Christie's kicking range. The Chargers tried three straight Tomlinson carries before Christie came on to nail the game-winner right down the middle.
"It was my first catch as a pro," Parker said. "I felt lucky just to be out there. I just broke it off to the sideline and headed for the hole in the coverage. No one was there. I've been working so hard to contribute, and I really wanted to do something to contribute. I really shouldn't have been out there, but I'm happy for the chance."
"I told [Parker] afterward that catch was worth six points," said linebacker Junior Seau, whose sack of Garcia in overtime had helped lengthen the distance of Cortez's miss. "He's a good kid, and I'm really happy for him.
"We're protecting our home right now. If we can do that from here on out, we're definitely going to be employed in January."