SAN DIEGO – The San Diego Chargers have regained their December swagger, thanks to Vincent Jackson's return and a smash-mouth defense.
Jackson caught a careerhigh three touchdown passes, Philip Rivers surpassed 4,000 yards passing for the third consecutive season and the Chargers beat the San Francisco 49ers, 34-7, on Thursday night to stay alive in the AFC West race.
Jackson reminded the Chargers just what they missed when he sat out 10 games during a nasty contract dispute and suspension.
“Since I’ve been here, it’s like I had never left,” said Jackson, who had his first three TD grabs of the season, of 58, 11 and 21 yards.
“He seems to be in midseason form,” Rivers said. “I feel like he’s been here for 15 weeks. That’s a credit to the way he practices.”
The Chargers (8-6) pulled one-half game behind AFC West leader Kansas City (8-5), which lost at San Diego on Sunday, 31-0.
San Francisco was probably the toughest test left for the Chargers, who finish with games at Cincinnati (2-11) and Denver (3-10). If San Diego wins out and the Chiefs lose once, the Chargers will win their fifth consecutive division title.
The Chargers came within 4 minutes, 26 seconds of having consecutive shutouts for the first time in their 51-year history.
The 49ers (5-9) could wind up 7-9 and in a three-way tie and still win the NFC West, the NFL’s weakest division.
Rivers and Jackson came out early in the fourth quarter and the Chargers leading 31-0.
Rivers was 19-for-25 for 273 yards, giving him 4,141 for the season. He tied Hall of Famer Dan Fouts’ team record set from 1979-81. Jackson had five catches for 112 yards.
“He and Phil have such a good rapport,” center Nick Hardwick said. “They both know what’s going on, and they’ve studied for hours together. We were expecting him to come in and explode, and that’s what he’s done. He’s a beast. He does things other players can’t do, and he did it tonight.”
Unhappy that the Chargers didn’t give him a long-term deal, Jackson sat out the first seven games. He then missed three more games while serving a team-imposed suspension. The move cost him some $3 million in salary.
When he returned at Indianapolis on Nov. 28, he pulled a calf muscle two plays in and was done for the night and the next game.
On the fourth play from scrimmage, Rivers wound up and threw deep.
The 6-foot-5 Jackson slowed down and reached out over 6-foot Nate Clements’ head to make the catch at about the 15 before outracing the cornerback into the end zone.
Jackson exploited a mismatch against linebacker Takeo Spikes for an easy 11-yard catch just before halftime.
Jackson pulled in a 21-yarder early in the fourth quarter, getting the ball just past the pylon. The play was upheld after a review.
Mike Tolbert had a 1-yard TD run in the third quarter and Nate Kaeding kicked field goals of 25 and 39 yards.
San Francisco’s only score came on Brian Westbrook’s 3-yard run with 4:26 left.