SAN DIEGO — First, the 49ers lost an apparent game-tying touchdown. Then they lost one of their best defensive players.
Then they lost contact with the San Diego Chargers in a 34-7 loss at Qualcomm Stadium on Thursday night.
The crippling two-minute sequence early in the second quarter surely didn't cost San Francisco a game in which they were outclassed, overwhelmed and outgained, 374-192.
But it certainly hastened their demise, both in this game and, possibly, in their 5-9 season.
With the loss, the Niners could be eliminated from playoff contention if NFC co-leaders St. Louis (6-7) and Seattle win Sunday. The Rams host Kansas City (8-5) and the Seahawks host the Falcons (11-2). More likely, though, San Francisco will have 10 days to prepare for a must-win game at St. Louis on Dec. 26.
In order to beat the Rams on the road — the Niners dropped to 3-12 away from home since 2009 — they will have to wipe away the stench from being eviscerated by the Chargers (8-6), who improved to 15-1 in December since 2007.
In contrast, San Francisco proved, yet again, that's it not ready to step up in class.
The 49ers, who are 0-7 against teams with a winning record this season, dropped to 0-10 on the road against teams outside the wretched NFC West since 2009. In their last three non-division games, San Francisco has been outscored, 89-23.
On Thursday, the 49ers had a chance to show a national audience that they were better than their 5-8 record.
Instead, they left many wondering how they got five wins.
"It's a shame we missed the opportunity tonight," Niners coach Mike Singletary said. "It was a great opportunity — right there."
Linebacker Takeo Spikes echoed Singletary's sentiments — in slightly more colorful language, "The most frustrating thing ... is to know we had the opportunity to be sitting in the driver's seat after tonight and we p----- it down the drain."
For 15 minutes, the Niners hung with the Chargers.
And then, a series of gaffes showed they couldn't handle adversity.
Trailing 7-0 early in the second quarter, quarterback Alex Smith scored on a seven-yard, third-down run which was overturned by replay after initially being ruled a touchdown.
On the next play, fourth-and-goal from the San Diego one-yard line, running back Anthony Dixon was stuffed for a one-yard loss thanks to a breakdown on the offensive line.
Four plays later, defensive tackle Justin Smith was ejected after making contact with an official, drawing a 15-yard, personal-foul penalty that wiped away a second-and-15 for San Diego. The Chargers, given a fresh set of downs, continued a 13-play, 90-yard match capped by Nate Kaeding's 25-yard field goal which gave them a 10-0 lead with 6:03 left in the second quarter.
It was beginning of the blowout.
In a 31-minute span starting with Smith's overturned touchdown, the Niners were outgained 279-34, outscored 24-0 and managed just one first down.
The roof, clearly, caved in. And Singletary said he was disappointed in his team's inability to overcome adversity.
"I really look for our team, in spite of the setbacks, to really take a step forward," he said. "Obviously we did not. We continued to stumble."