SAN DIEGO — As Deion Sanders strutted over the final third of his 90-yard interception return Sunday, the San Diego Chargers gawked as if watching a ghost.
Two months ago, that was them. Unbeaten after six games, dancing through the NFL amid dreams of Super Bowls and shoe commercials.
But their gait has changed. That became evident Sunday after they suffered their worst beating in nearly two years, a 38-15 loss to a San Francisco 49er team that was supposed to be their equal.
Where once they were skipping, now they are stumbling.
"Everybody keeps saying we just need one win to get into the playoffs . . . one win, one win, one win," said Stanley Richard in the quiet Charger locker room. "You start to wonder, when are we going to get that win? \o7 Are \f7 we going to get that win?"
Potential playoff matchup? This wouldn't even have qualified as a good exhibition matchup.
With one minute left in the first half, the 49ers were leading by three touchdowns. They had outgained the Chargers, 223-75.
That the 49er defense snoozed through the rest of the game did little to refute the notion that these were teams from different planets.
With a victory against the Denver Broncos next week, San Francisco will clinch home-field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs.
The 49ers are playing so well that shortly after tying Joe Montana's club record with his 31st touchdown pass of the season, quarterback Steve Young scolded the team for not beating the Chargers worse. This even though they had just won their ninth consecutive game while outscoring opponents, 322-146.
"We need to be mean and nasty," said Young, who threw for 304 yards and two touchdowns and no interceptions.
The Chargers have lost five of their last eight games, and have only two remaining chances to clinch the AFC West Division title without help from the Raiders or Kansas City Chiefs.
That would not make the playoffs seems unfathomable. But if they cannot defeat the Jets in New York next week, or the Pittsburgh Steelers at home in the season finale on Christmas Eve, the Chargers might need help.
"Maybe we should go back and look at some film of some of our earlier games," Richard said. "Man, that seems like a long time ago."
By the end of this game, the first quarter seemed like a long time ago. That was when the Chargers made the mistake that has typified not only this game, but the second half of their season.
After holding the 49ers on their first possession, the Chargers used Natrone Means' barrel legs and Stan Humphries' slant passes to drive 48 yards to the 49er 31-yard line.
Once there, with the Jack Murphy Stadium sellout crowd of 62,105 roaring, they went for a first down on fourth and eight. But they never had a chance.
Curtis Whitley, a backup guard working on the injury-battered offensive line, pulled to the right when he should have pulled to the left. Tim Harris, the 49ers' designated pass rusher, ran through the open hole and pulled down Humphries before he had a chance to set up.
The sack was worth nine yards and possession of the ball. About six minutes later, the 49ers turned it into a touchdown after Young found Brent Jones open for a 10-yard scoring pass. The game was never again close.
"Out of the corner of my eye, I see a guy coming through my hole and it was a horrible feeling," Whitley said. "It was like, 'Oh no.' "
Although Charger linebacker Junior Seau will never admit it, he apparently had that feeling several times too.
Knowing Seau was playing with a pinched nerve in his neck, and then later a sprained left knee after a bruising tackle in the second period, the 49ers pointed their offense directly at him.
Time and again, catches were made in front of him, or ballcarriers would run past him as he vainly hobbled after them.
"This is definitely a down time for us," Seau said. "But I've got no excuses."
Gary Plummer, 49er linebacker and former Charger, had some advice.
"I told Junior afterward that he really needs to sit out for a game," Plummer said.
He didn't say whether he had talked to Means, who also sprained his knee, ironically on his first powerful run in weeks, a 12-yard touchdown rumble in which he flattened cornerback Eric Davis.
"I've been through this before with the Chargers, in 1987 when we collapsed and didn't even make the playoffs," Plummer said. "I wouldn't say the wheels are coming off."
He paused. "But they do have a heckuva lot of pressure on them."
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\o7 Jerry Rice caught 12 passes for 144 yards Sunday, moving him into second place on the career reception yardage list: \f7
Player Yrs Yards James Lofton 16 14,004 *Jerry Rice 10 13,121 Steve Largent 14 13,089 *Art Monk 15 12,582 Charlie Joiner 18 12,146 Don Maynard 15 11,834