The San Francisco 49ers and Los Angeles Chargers will both enter Sunday evening’s matchup at the StubHub Center with identical 1-2 records. It’s certainly not the start that either one of these teams envisioned prior to the start of the 2018 NFL season. And now, both teams already find themselves in an uphill battle to meet lofty preseason expectations.
Los Angeles is no stranger to overcoming a slow start. The Chargers managed to rebound from an 0-4 start last season to finish 9-7. But it still wasn’t good enough to make the playoffs, as L.A. continued to struggle in matchups against elite competition. That trend has manifested once again in 2018 with early-season losses against the surging Chiefs and Rams. The good news is that the schedule becomes far more manageable over the next few weeks. And with a little momentum, a talented Chargers squad might just be able to get over the hump against better competition down the stretch. But first, they will need to bounce back against the wounded 49ers at home.
San Francisco’s bid to rebound from a 1-2 start appears far more daunting at this point. The 49ers were already charged with overcoming the loss of running back Jerick McKinnon to a torn ACL in the preseason. But the final dagger may have come in last week’s 38-27 loss to the Chiefs, as franchise quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo’s season ended abruptly after suffering the same injury as McKinnon. Additional injuries along the offensive line and in the secondary further add to the difficult challenge that now faces the snake-bitten Niners heading into week 4. But the show must go on, which begs the question: Can the 49ers dig deep and find a way to rally behind backup quarterback C.J. Beathard against the Chargers on the road?
San Francisco at Los Angeles
Kickoff: Sunday, Sept. 30 at 4:25 p.m. ET
Spread: Chargers -10.5
Three Things to Watch
1. C.J. Beathard — savior or bust?
The fate of the 49ers’ season now rests on the arm of the second-year quarterback. A poor performance from Beathard on Sunday could be deflating for the Niners moving forward, while a standout performance against the Chargers would provide optimism for a team that was believed to be doomed without Jimmy Garoppolo under center.
The good news is that Beathard knows Kyle Shanahan’s intricate offense like the back of his hand. And on the surface, this appears to be a favorable matchup. The Los Angeles pass rush isn’t nearly as intimidating without Pro Bowl defensive end Joey Bosa in the lineup, and the Chargers’ 25th-ranked pass defense has struggled in the first three weeks of the season. However, in the interest of fairness, the Chargers have faced off against two of the league’s top quarterbacks in Pat Mahomes and Jared Goff. There may not be a defense in the NFL that can contain the elite passing attacks led by Mahomes and Goff this season.
It’s also fair to say that C.J. Beathard is no Patrick Mahomes or Jared Goff, not even close. Beathard completed 54.9 percent of his passes for 1,430 yards with four touchdown passes against six interceptions last season. And the 49ers came away with points on just 14 of 60 possessions when he was under center. More importantly, San Francisco was 1-5 with Beathard in a starting role in 2017. He didn’t exactly have the passing attack hitting on all cylinders in the preseason either. While Beathard may find a way to persevere against the Chargers on Sunday, his track record to this point suggests otherwise.
2. Philip Rivers vs. the San Francisco pass defense
Despite the Chargers’ 1-2 record, Philip Rivers is off to one of the best starts of his NFL career. Through three games, Rivers boasts an impressive 115.7 passer rating, completing 69.4 percent of his passes for 906 yards with eight touchdowns and just one interception. Conditions appear favorable for Rivers to keep his hot streak going as he makes his 196th consecutive regular season start against the 49ers on Sunday.
The 49ers’ 27th-ranked pass defense has been very generous to opposing quarterbacks so far in 2018, allowing 287.7 passing yards per game and eight touchdowns. San Francisco also is one of just two NFL teams that has yet to record an interception in 2018. Like the Chargers, the 49ers' struggles can be partially attributed to facing top-flight competition at quarterback. Unlike the Chargers, the Niners’ pass defense will not get a reprieve this week. To make matters worse, San Francisco will be without top cornerback Richard Sherman (calf) this week, while starting safety Jaquiski Tartt (shoulder) is doubtful for Sunday’s matchup.
The Chargers also have an injury concern with wide receiver Keenan Allen (knee) listed as questionable for Sunday. However, second-year wideout Mike Williams already has emerged as a big-play target for Rivers. And Rivers should have more than enough firepower at his disposal to exploit the beaten-up 49ers secondary regardless of Allen’s status on Sunday.
3. Can Matt Breida keep it rolling against the Chargers?
No one in the NFL has done more with less than San Francisco ‘s Matt Breida through the first three weeks of the season. The second-year undrafted running back out of Georgia Southern finds himself sitting atop the NFL leaderboard with 274 rushing yards on just 32 carries. That averages out to a remarkable 8.4 yards per tote, and one in every six of Breida’s carries has resulted in a gain of 20 yards or more.
Breida hyperextended his knee in last week’s loss to the Chiefs, but he did manage to return. And after a limited practice on Wednesday, Breida appears to be good to go for Sunday following a full practice on Thursday. Meanwhile, fellow back mate Alfred Morris (knee) popped up on the injury report as questionable. That could entail an even bigger role for Breida against a vulnerable Chargers run defense on Sunday. Los Angeles is giving up a generous 120.3 rushing yards per game (24th in the NFL).
You can probably expect to see a bigger role for Breida in the passing game this week as well. According to Pro Football Focus, C.J. Beathard targeted running backs on 32.1 percent of his pass attempts last season. A big afternoon on the ground for Breida could also help open things up for Beathard in the passing game.
This was always going to be a tough matchup for the 49ers. Even with a healthy Jimmy Garoppolo taking the snaps, the Chargers would have still been favored at home. San Francisco has not allowed fewer than 24 points in any of its three games this season. And when you factor in injuries to Richard Sherman and Jaquiski Tartt in the 49ers' secondary, it simply does not bode well against a potent Los Angeles passing attack led by the red-hot Philip Rivers. Melvin Gordon has the potential to light up the 49ers' run defense as well.
Matt Breida is explosive enough to keep the San Francisco offense on track to some degree if C.J. Beathard struggles in the passing game. However, that won’t be nearly enough for the wounded Niners to keep pace with the Chargers. San Francisco’s chances to pull off the upset on the road are slim at best.
Prediction: Chargers 31, 49ers 17
— Written by Rob McVey, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @Rob_UTVOLS.