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One of the toughest things about playing on the road is the hostile environment that you enter. Playing in someone else's stadium usually means you must block out the fans and play twice as hard if you expect to escape with the win. On Sunday, December 3rd, the San Francisco 49ers made a rare regular season visit to San Diego where they would take on the 1 and 11 Chargers.
San Diego had just come off a big win against the rival Kansas City Chiefs and hoped to upset yet another team with Steve Mariucci's squad in town. The 49ers 5th ranked offense was ready to take on the Chargers 15th ranked defense and on the other side of the ball, the Chargers' 24th ranked offense was ready to take on the 49ers' 30th ranked defense.
A team walked through the tunnel and watched as the 57,255 people at Qualcomm stadium cheered the team that they were preparing to go to war with. The stadium rumbled as each defensive player was introduced to the packed stadium. It was now your turn. And you knew what to expect as you ran out into a hostile stadium that hated you for even being there. Your team is introduced and one by one (with the rare exception of NFL greats) you are met with thousands upon thousands of people booing and hissing.
This is a normal welcome for a visiting team heading into battle right? Then it hits you. You're not the visiting team. You are the home team…the San Diego Chargers. This is your house and they are not happy to see you. As you run out onto the field, you look out into the stands and don't see the normal and familiar sea of blue and lightning yellow that you are used to. Instead you see a swarm of red and gold covering each and every level.
The home crowd is supposed to cheer the home team right? Well, that was not the case this day.
Good job Niner fans. You were as big a part of the 49ers 45-17 romping of the Chargers as the team that you came to cheer. Niner fans from all over completely outnumbered the Charger fans. In fact, looking from above, it wasn't even close. This was like a 49ers home game. The 49ers offense would take the field and cheers would roar through the ball park. The Chargers offense came out and the exact opposite happened. When the Chargers were faced with a 3rd down situation, the masses would chant "DEFENSE!! DEFENSE!!"
After Jerry Rice's second touchdown of the game, once the game was well in hand, fans honored the legendary player my screaming "JERRY!! JERRY!! JERRY!!"
"For them to do that, it left me speechless and almost a little embarrassed. But I'm very appreciative," said Rice. "It's an away game," he said. "For them to react like that ... and I was looking around and there were so many '80' jerseys, so it really warmed my heart. I don't know, man, I feel like some kind of rock star, coming into an opponent's stadium and getting all that adulation."
This is the reaction you would expect if you were playing at home under the San Francisco sun in 3com Park. Not on the road. But, Jerry Rice and his 49ers were welcomed by the city with open arms.
Before the match up, the 49ers had just 3 more wins than the Chargers. So why did the fans come by the truckload to cheer on a 4-8 team that had about as much chance of making a playoff appearance as Ryan Leaf has of becoming the league MVP? Well, this proves that the 49ers have always and probably will always have a great following not only on the west coast but nation wide (remember the swarms of Niner fans that showed up for the 49ers/Cowboys game?). Plus it doesn't hurt that the 49ers were coming off two wins where their once young, napping defense has shown that it has matured and is alive and kicking.
The 45-17 rout of the Chargers have critics asking, "Could this team be the Cinderella team of the 2001 season?" Niner fans hope so. Coach Steve Mariucci hopes so as well. "You're just one or two players away from being in the middle," he said. In this league, "the middle" puts you in the playoff hunt.
But Mariucci also warns to over anxious 49ers fans, "we're more than one or two players away."
Two major gripes with the coaching staff of the 49ers. In the first quarter with no score, they decided to go for a forth-down conversion near midfield. I don't care what the situation is; you don't risk giving up that kind of field position that early in the game. The outcome? Chargers ball near midfield and a march to the endzone. You have not played long enough to assume you know for a fact that you will convert that down.
The second came in the forth quarter when the 49ers went up by 19. The Chargers defense had already started to fall apart by this point and was no longer much of a threat. Instead of kicking the field goal and moving up by 20, the go for 2 going ahead by three touchdowns. To some, this might seem logical. An even three touchdowns right? The Chargers were not going to score three touchdowns with less than a quarter left. Had you just gone up by 12, I might understand going for two. But the only reason to go up by 21 rather than 20 was to run up the score, something that fans watched the Rams often do early in the season and last year. Show a little class. We were already pounding the Chargers. No need to rub it in.
But for Sunday's game against the Chargers, I must congratulate all the fans that made the trip. If every road game were like that one, we might be in the hunt this year.