SANTA CLARA –- In the first meaningless game played in Jim Harbaugh’s tenure as an NFL coach, the 49ers put forth perhaps their best performance of the season with a roster depleted by 16 players on injured reserve.
For a while, anyway.
San Diego quarterback Philip Rivers picked apart a 49ers defense that had just three players on the field –- Justin Smith, Chris Culliver and Antoine Bethea -- at the end of the game that was being counted on as starters when the season began.
Kicker Nick Novak made a 40-yard field goal to complete the Chargers’ rally from a 21-point third-quarter deficit for a 38-35 victory Saturday night over the 49ers at Levi’s Stadium.
The 49ers received the kickoff to open overtime after Rivers hit Malcom Floyd with an 11-yard touchdown :29 remaining in regulation to force the extra period. But 49ers receiver Quinton Patton fumbled to set up the Chargers’ winning score.
Rivers completed 33 of 54 passes for 356 yards with four touchdowns and three interceptions to rally the Chargers (9-6) to the victory, which keeps their playoff hopes alive.
Running back Frank Gore, whose career with the 49ers might be winding down, was in vintage form as the 49ers in the first half as the 49ers attempted to play spoiler. The 49ers (7-8) lost their fourth consecutive game.
Gore, the engine behind nearly every 49ers offense on which he has played in his 10 NFL seasons, pumped some life into an offense that has been moribund for most of the season.
And, finally, quarterback Colin Kaepernick showed the breakaway running that he has not shown much since 2012, when he took over for Alex Smith and helped the team get to the Super Bowl.
Gore rushed for 158 yards on 26 carries. And Kaepernick had 151 yards on seven attempts. His 90-yard sprint in the third quarter was his first rushing touchdown of the season.
It was the first time since Delvin Williams and Wilbur Jackson in 1977 that two 49ers rushed for 100 yards or more in the same game.
The 49ers rushed for a franchise-record 355 yards -- the highest rushing total from a losing team in NFL history. They also intercepted Rivers three times, but had three turnovers of their own.
On his second rushing attempt of the game, Gore broke through the tackle attempts of linebacker Melvin Ingram and cornerback Brandon Flowers, then shoved away safety Eric Weddle with a wicked stiff arm en route to a 52-yard touchdown run.
It was Gore’s longest run since a 55-yarder against Detroit in 2011. And it was his longest touchdown run since November 2009 against Indianapolis. It was also the longest touchdown run the Chargers had allowed since 2010. It was the 38th time in Gore’s career he eclipsed 100 yards.
Kaepernick, who’s had a difficult time finding space to run this season, got into the act in the third quarter when he tore through the Chargers defense for a career-high 90-yard touchdown run to give the 49ers a 35-21 lead.
The Chargers had pulled to within a touchdown when San Diego defensive lineman Corey Liuget recovered Kaepernick’s fumble in the end zone.
On the previous play, Kaepernick’s 63-yard touchdown pass to tight end Vernon Davis was nullified by Gore’s chop block.
Kaepernick completed 15 of 24 passes for 114 yards and one touchdown.
Ellington’s big night: Rookie wide receiver Bruce Ellington became the first 49ers rookie since Amp Lee in 1992 to score a receiving and rushing touchdown in a game.
Ellington caught an 8-yard touchdown pass from Kaepernick in the second quarter. It was Ellington’s second scoring reception of the season but his first from Kaepernick. Ellington’s first touchdown was a scoring pass from Blaine Gabbert late in the 49ers’ blowout loss at Denver. Ellington later was ruled out of the game with a hamstring injury.
Late in the second quarter, Ellington scored again on a 1-yard run on a fly sweep to give the 49ers a 28-7 lead.
Bethea’s score: Strong safety Anquan Bethea had it read perfectly. He peels off the inside receiver to step in front of tight end Antonio Gates. Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers did not see him.
Bethea picked off Rivers’ pass and returned it 49 yards for a touchdown in the second quarter to give the 49ers a 21-0 lead. It was the first touchdown of Bethea’s nine-year NFL career.
Reid concussion: Free safety Eric Reid was diagnosed with a concussion in the first half of the 49ers' game Saturday night against the San Diego Chargers and was ruled out from returning.
Reid sustained two concussions as a rookie but returned to action the following weeks and did not miss any starts. The 49ers have one game remaining in the season, and he would have to pass through the NFL's protocol on concussions in order to be cleared to return to action.
This ‘n’ that
--Outside linebacker Aldon Smith left the game late in the fourth quarter to undergo examination for a possible concussion.
--Kicker Phil Dawson lined up for a 60-yard field goal on the final play of regulation, but his attempt came up way short. Fortunately for the 49ers, the Chargers did not put a return man in the end zone.
--Gore is only player in the NFL in this season with a 50-yard-plus touchdown run and 50–plus TD reception. He had a 55-yard touchdown catch from Kaepernick earlier this season against Philadelphia.
--Cornerback Perrish Cox recorded his team-leading fifth interception of the season. Chris Culliver had his third interception in the third quarter.
--Cox took over for Ellington on kick returns and had a 57-yard return. It was the 49ers’ longest kick return of the season – by 19 yards.
--Wide receiver Michael Crabtree was listed prior to the game as questionable with a knee injury. He started but was pulled from the game in the first half. But he returned late in the fourth quarter when he was needed due to other injuries. He caught a pass in overtime, extending his streak with a reception to all 78 NFL games in which he has appeared.
--Wide receiver Brandon Lloyd sustained a groin injury. Safety Bubba Ventrone was ruled out with a groin injury. And cornerback Leon McFadden left the game with a head injury.
--Quinton Patton, who finished last season as the 49ers’ No. 3 wide receiver, caught his first two passes for the season for 9 yards.
--Backup running back Carlos Hyde did not suit up for the game due to an ankle sprain he sustained last week against Seattle. Alfonso Smith and Phillip Tanner were the 49ers’ reserve running backs behind Gore, who entered the game 196 yards short of his eighth 1,000-yard season.
--Right tackle Anthony Davis returned to action after missing four games with a concussion. He made just his fourth start of the season. Jonathan Martin returned to the bench after starting nine games.
--Ahmad Brooks was not available due to a dislocated thumb he sustained against the Seahawks. Dan Skuta and Aaron Lynch split the duties in place of Brooks. The 49ers promoted Chase Thomas from the practice squad to be available to play.
--Inside linebacker Nick Moody got the first NFL start of his NFL career in place of Chris Borland, who was placed on injured reserve Saturday with an ankle sprain.
--The 49ers deactivated backup lineman Joe Looney for the first time this season. Looney started last week in place of center Marcus Martin, who returned after missing one game with a knee injury. Offensive coordinator Greg Roman said Looney played poorly against Seattle. Undrafted rookie lineman Dillon Farrell was active in place of Looney.