SANTA CLARA — With Saturday’s 38-35 overtime loss to the San Diego Chargers serving as the ultimate punch in the stomach, the 49ers are left to play their season finale with two things in mind:
Finishing .500 and being a playoff spoiler. Both can be accomplished with a victory over the Arizona Cardinals.
The Cardinals are coming off a 35-6 loss to the Seattle Seahawks on Sunday, which left those teams tied in the NFC West at 11-4, although the Seahawks hold the tiebreaker. Currently, the Cardinals and Green Bay (11-4) are the two wild cards in the NFC, although the Packers are tied with Detroit for first in the NFC North entering their Week 17 showdown.
The Niners, meanwhile, are reeling after blowing a 28-7 halftime lead to the Chargers in which their running game was dominant, their passing game almost nonexistent and their once-stellar defense forced to rely on practice squad players and others not used to seeing tons of action.
On top of that is the continuing rumor mill regarding coach Jim Harbaugh. Despite leading the 49ers to three straight NFC Championship Games and one Super Bowl appearance in his first three seasons as an NFL head coach, Harbaugh has butted heads with Niners brass and could either be traded, be fired or quit soon after Sunday’s finale against the Cardinals, according to reports. Harbaugh has one year remaining on his original five-year, $25 million contract he signed to leave the Stanford program he built at the college level. Harbaugh, who played quarterback in college at Michigan, has reportedly been offered a six-year, $48 million contract that would make him the highest-paid coach at the college level.
Jay Glazer of Fox Sports reported that Harbaugh’s response to the Michigan following the offer was: “You know, right now, I just don’t know what I want to do.”
Harbaugh could end up across San Francisco Bay with the Raiders, either via trade or if he is fired. The Raiders fired coach Dennis Allen after an 0-4 start, with Tony Sparano named interim coach.
Saturday’s loss certainly didn’t help matters. In the first half, the Niners’ offense looked like what many had hoped it would be all season, with running back Frank Gore running hard, including a 52-yard touchdown, after sustaining a concussion last week against the Seahawks as San Francisco built a seemingly comfortable 28-7 halftime lead and seemed to be poised to snap their three-game losing streak, the longest of the Harbaugh era. But then came the second half.
The Chargers, still clinging to playoff hopes, scored two touchdowns in each of the third and fourth quarters — sandwiched around Niners quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s spectacular 90-yard TD run — to tie the game and force overtime.
From there, 49ers receiver Quinton Patton — playing a key role due to an injury to Michael Crabtree — fumbled in overtime and the Chargers drove down and kicked the winning field goal.
On defense, the Niners were without playmaking linebackers Patrick Willis, NaVorro Bowman, Chris Borland and Ahmad Brooks, while safety Eric Reid sustained a concussion — the third of his career — and Aldon Smith missed a chunk of the game with a head injury before being cleared to return. The secondary and line were also very banged up, forcing inexperienced players to step into key roles. In general, Harbaugh was happy with how the replacements performed.
“There’s several [who played well],” Harbaugh said. “Who in particular? A lot of guys played. [Nose tackle] Michael Purcell came up, [cornerback Marcus] Cromartie, [linebacker] Chase Thomas, all this week. Young guys were out there battling and the entire team was.”