NFL Nation: Five things to watch 101216

Mike TolbertJody Gomez/US PresswireSan Diego will need to balance the offense by giving the ball to Mike Tolbert and Ryan Mathews.
The San Diego Chargers don’t want Thursday night's game to be their final home date of the season. So, they better be the same Chargers team that beat the visiting Chiefs, 31-0, on Sunday and not the San Diego team that lost to Oakland by 15 points at home Dec. 5. The Chargers must win-out, and hope the Chiefs stumble once, so San Diego can win its fifth straight AFC West crown.

Here are five things to look for in San Diego's regular-season home finale against San Francisco:

Can Rivers keep it under 30? It is clear the Chargers' best recipe of winning is to keep quarterback Philip Rivers’ pass totals down. San Diego is 1-6 when Rivers tosses more than 30 passes in a game this season. It is 6-0 when Rivers throws less than 30 passes in a game. That is resounding proof to the Chargers that they must have balance to win.

Chargers are using the shotgun well: When Rivers does pass against the 49ers, it won’t be a surprise if he uses the shotgun. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Rivers completed 15 of 17 passes for 204 yards and a touchdown pass while using the shotgun against the Chiefs. I’m sure the Chargers will try to stay hot by using the same formation just four days after it worked so well against Kansas City.

Third-down madness: The San Diego defense was dominant on third down against the Chiefs, holding them to no conversion in 11 attempts. San Francisco has converted just 34 percent of its third-down attempts this season, tied for the fifth-lowest percentage in the NFL.

Getting it done, Cason: Focus on San Diego cornerback Antoine Cason. The Chargers’ top pick in 2008, Cason has ably taken over for the spectacular but inconsistent Antonio Cromartie, who was traded to the Jets in the offseason. Cason has played well the past several weeks opposite Quentin Jammer, and his pass-defense numbers have been among the league's best this season.

The Chargers may want to go up the middle again: According to ESPN Stats & Information, the Chargers ran the ball well up the middle against the Chiefs. I’d expect the Chargers to try to force the ball down the 49ers’ throat as well. More than a half of San Diego's 207 rushing yards against Kansas City were gained on plays up the middle. A running game that wears down a defense up the gut, plus the presence of Rivers, makes San Diego’s offense difficult to contain.

Five things to watch: 49ers at Chargers

December, 16, 2010
Five things to watch when the San Francisco 49ers face the San Diego Chargers at Qualcomm Stadium:

1. The pregame inactive list.

49ers linebackers Takeo Spikes and Patrick Willis wore casts on their injured hands this week. They missed practice time.

There's a chance one or both could wind up on the inactive list San Francisco submits 90 minutes before kickoff. If they are active, their hand injuries could make it tougher for them to pick off passes or make tackles. Spikes has an interception in two of the 49ers' past three games.

Willis has a career-high five sacks. The 49ers value his ability to get pressure up the middle in addition to the more conventional skills he offers from play to play.

2. Alex Smith's patience.

The 49ers' Alex Smith has six touchdowns and no interceptions in his past three starts. He has eight touchdowns in the past three full games he has played.

The numbers are starting to add up. Smith now has a higher passer rating for the season than any quarterback in the division.

The momentum Smith has built recently could dissipate quickly against this San Diego defense, however.

The Chargers have shown they can frustrate even the NFL's best quarterbacks. Peyton Manning tossed four interceptions against them three weeks ago.

Opposing quarterbacks have 12 touchdowns, 13 interceptions and a 72.9 rating against San Diego. Only the Green Bay Packers have held opposing passers to a lower overall rating (68.1).

3. The Pro Bowl tight ends.

The Chargers will probably play without Antonio Gates, leaving the 49ers' Vernon Davis as the last Pro Bowl tight end standing in this matchup.

Davis has caught a touchdown pass in the past five games Alex Smith has started. He has scoring receptions of 66 and 42 yards in his past two games.

Colts tight end Jacob Tamme caught seven passes for 64 yards and a touchdown against San Diego.

4. Those fiery halftime speeches.

The 49ers have scored only 30 points in third quarters this season, less than half what they've scored in any other quarter this season.

San Francisco has failed to score at all in eight third quarters. The 49ers haven't scored a third-quarter offensive touchdown since Michael Crabtree's 32-yarder against Oakland way back in Week 6.

San Diego has outscored its past six opponents 37-3 in third quarters.

Chargers coach Norv Turner isn't the fiery type. Halftime adjustments apparently trump halftime speeches.

5. Watch out for the long ball

Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers ranks second to Drew Brees in touchdown passes that traveled more than 20 yards in the air, ESPN Stats & Information notes.

The 49ers' defense has allowed 56.8 percent completions, by far the worst percentage in the league, on passes traveling at least that far.

Rivers has eight touchdowns, four interceptions and a 93.8 rating on these passes. He has completed 45.5 percent while averaging 17.0 yards per attempt. The 49ers have alloweed 21.2 yards per attempt with four touchdowns, two interceptions and a 115.0 rating on these throws.