NFL Nation: Ryan Mathews

The San Diego Chargers (5-3) will travel to face the Miami Dolphins (4-3) in an important game with early playoff implications. Both teams could be fighting for a wild card in the AFC, which would make owning the head-to-head tiebreaker important.

Who will prevail in this matchup? ESPN Chargers reporter Eric D. Williams and ESPN Dolphins reporter James Walker discuss:

Walker: Miami has won two in a row and San Diego has lost two in a row, so momentum may be a factor in this matchup. Where are the Chargers in terms of confidence and ending their losing streak?

Williams: The Chargers are a veteran-led group that understands the ebb and flow of an NFL season, so confidence will not be an issue traveling on the road to face the Dolphins. Two of San Diego's three losses have come on the road, against teams that have one loss apiece (Denver and Arizona). San Diego's other loss was a three-point setback to AFC West rival Kansas City at home.

The Chargers don't make a lot of mistakes and generally force opponents to beat them. Coach Mike McCoy is meticulous in his game-day preparation and his staff is skilled in making in-game adjustments. I expect San Diego will be ready for whatever the Dolphins plan to do scheme-wise on both sides of the ball.

The Dolphins are doing a nice job of running, ranked No. 6 by averaging 138 rushing yards per game. How has new coordinator Bill Lazor turned things around on offense?

Walker: Most people expected Lazor to come in and quickly fix the passing game, but he has made his biggest contribution with the running game. Miami's ground game has been consistent, whether it was Knowshon Moreno early, Lamar Miller lately or even quarterback Ryan Tannehill, who has three runs of 30 yards or more in the past three games. Lazor has done a good job of spreading out defenses and calling run plays at the right time. His read-option with Tannehill and Miller has been a huge success. Miami's passing game still needs work, but there is progress.

West Coast teams often don't look the same in Miami; San Diego hasn't won here since the 1981 season. How are the Chargers combating that and will the 10-day layoff help?

Williams: Although West Coast teams traditionally struggle in early games traveling east, the Chargers have been relatively successful of late, posting a 7-5 record in 10 a.m. PT games since 2012. The extra days off have given this banged-up team a chance to get some players healthy, and with Philip Rivers controlling the offense, the Chargers are competitive more times than not. One of the keys for San Diego will be the possible return of running back Ryan Mathews. Out for the past six games with an MCL sprain, the Fresno State product could help provide some much-needed balance to San Diego's offense if healthy and cleared to play on Sunday.

After starting 1-2, the Dolphins have won three of their past four games to get back into the AFC playoff race. What has been the difference?

Walker: Part of it is the schedule. The Dolphins cannot hide from that fact. All three of Miami's victories during this stretch have been against the struggling Jacksonville Jaguars (1-7), Oakland Raiders (0-7) and Chicago Bears (3-5). Those are bad teams the Dolphins must beat if they want to be considered playoff contenders, and to their credit they took care of business.

The Dolphins are 1-3 against teams with winning records. That is why this game against San Diego is such a good measuring stick of where the Dolphins stand. Miami's next four opponents have a combined record of 22-9 (.709 winning percentage), so we are going to find out quickly whether the Dolphins are contenders or pretenders.

San Diego was banged up before its previous game against the Broncos. Where are the Chargers injury-wise heading into Sunday's game?

Williams: The Chargers should be in a better place health-wise. Four weeks ago against Jacksonville, the Chargers barely had enough healthy bodies to fill 46 spots on the active roster. Along with Mathews, cornerback Brandon Flowers and running back Donald Brown are possibilities to return from concussions. Pass rushers Jeremiah Attaochu (hamstring) and Cordarro Law (ankle) also should have a chance to make it back on the field on Sunday. Offensive linemen D.J. Fluker (ankle) and Rich Ohrnberger (back) have been playing with injuries, so the extra time should work in their favor as well.

The Dolphins are No. 3 in passing defense, holding teams to just 212 passing yards a game. How does the front seven set the tone?

Walker: Miami's front four are the strength of the entire team. The Dolphins have waves of good players, starting with defensive ends Cameron Wake and Olivier Vernon and defensive tackles Jared Odrick, Earl Mitchell and Randy Starks. Miami also is getting contributions off the bench from Derrick Shelby, Chris McCain and Dion Jordan, who recorded a couple of tackles in his first game off suspension. This group sets the tone for the defense. The Dolphins' linebackers have been inconsistent with the exception of Jelani Jenkins, who leads Miami in tackles (53) by a wide margin.

Chargers offseason wrap-up

May, 23, 2014
May 23
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With free agency and the draft in the rearview mirror and training camp just a couple of months away, we assess the San Diego Chargers’ offseason moves.

Best move: Some NFL analysts panned San Diego's signing of running back Donald Brown to a three-year, $10.4 million deal in free agency. Critics surmised that San Diego had more pressing needs on defense and the Chargers could get a cheaper alternative through the draft. But by signing Brown, Chargers general manager Tom Telesco locked up a known entity that will lessen the load for workhorse Ryan Mathews, particularly if San Diego advances deep in the playoffs for a second straight season.

[+] EnlargeDonald Brown
Kirby Lee/USA TODAY SportsDonald Brown, 31, adds depth to a Chargers backfield that already includes Ryan Mathews.
Brown also protects the Chargers should Mathews or Danny Woodhead not come back after the 2014 season. Both are set to hit free agency in 2015. Finally, with as much as head coach Mike McCoy likes to run the ball, the Chargers cannot have too much depth at running back and actually drafted Marion Grice in the sixth round to further bolster that group.

Riskiest move: There is no doubt cornerback Jason Verrett has the skills and mentality to be an effective cover cornerback in the NFL. Still, drafting a smaller cornerback when the trend is to use bigger players on the perimeter is a risky proposition for the Chargers. That Verrett is coming off shoulder surgery to repair a torn labrum and will not be ready to practice until August could leave San Diego looking at a slow transition for the TCU product. That is not good news for a defense that needs immediate help in the secondary.

Most surprising move: Perhaps the most surprising move is one San Diego chose not to make by passing on bringing in a big-name receiver in free agency and waiting until the seventh round to select Baylor speedster Tevin Reese. Receiver was considered a need position for the Chargers heading into this offseason. But as a seventh-round pick, Reese is not guaranteed to make the final roster. So perhaps the Chargers believe Vincent Brown will finally play up to his potential in 2014 and Malcom Floyd can return healthy from a serious neck injury that cut short his 2013 season. The Chargers need a consistent deep threat to emerge opposite second-year pro Keenan Allen.

Double-digit sack guy needed: Corey Liuget led the Chargers in sacks for the second year in a row with 5.5 in 2013. That can’t happen again in 2014. Someone from among a group of edge-rushers that includes Dwight Freeney, Melvin Ingram and Jeremiah Attaochu must emerge as double-digit sack guy for this team to generate a more consistent pass rush and help a young secondary.
Tom TelescoAP Photo/Phelan M. EbenhackComing off a playoff season, Tom Telesco hopes to build the Chargers into a perennial contender.
SAN DIEGO -- A patient decision-maker with just a week on the job, San Diego Chargers general manager Tom Telesco helped his new franchise make perhaps the most impactful move in recent memory when he hired Mike McCoy as the team’s new head coach a little over a year ago.

The detail-oriented McCoy, who had been the Denver Broncos' offensive coordinator, led the Chargers to their first playoff appearance since 2009. Along the way, he resuscitated the careers of quarterback Philip Rivers and running back Ryan Mathews.

Telesco and McCoy have San Diego headed in the right direction, re-establishing a good working relationship between the personnel department and coaching staff that had turned sour under former head personnel man A.J. Smith.

Telesco and McCoy let their actions speak louder than their words. McCoy divulged little about his team in weekly conversations with reporters, concerned with leaking information to the opponent.

Telesco shares a similar approach, preferring to speak in generalities about his team’s performance. For now, the hushed approach has proved effective.

On the field, Telesco said he was attracted to McCoy’s knack for teaching his coaching staff and players what he wanted to accomplish, along with an ability to adapt.

“He’s direct with the players,” Telesco said of McCoy. “He defines what he wants from them, so there’s no gray area. So everyone knows what’s exactly expected of them, and I think that’s a great trait to have.

“We had some ups and downs, which is pretty much what you’d expect from a team in transition. And you saw on the field that sometimes we looked like a pretty good football team, while other times you could say we looked pretty far away.

“So we were a little inconsistent early in the year, but he always kept the players focused. Even when we were 5-7 and most people had counted us out, the players were locked in on Mike the whole time. And you saw that on the practice field every day.”

The Chargers were a surprise entry to the playoffs last season. But San Diego has several aging foundational players in place, including Rivers, tight end Antonio Gates, center Nick Hardwick and safety Eric Weddle.

It’s the mild-mannered Telesco’s job in Year 2 to help provide McCoy with more tools to make a deeper playoff run in 2014, which means talent upgrades in the secondary and defensive and offensive lines, along with improving overall team speed through the draft and free agency.

Like most general managers, Telesco’s mantra is to build through the draft.

Telesco, 41, received his foundation for football while playing receiver at Division III John Carroll University in Ohio. And he cut his teeth in the personnel department of one of the best in the business, spending 15 years in Indianapolis under former NFL head personnel man Bill Polian. Indianapolis appeared in the playoffs 12 times, winning eight division titles and a Super Bowl during that time frame.

“He had a really great process with the way we did things,” Telesco said about his former boss. “We were very consistent. We tried to make as many good football decisions that we could, and that included taking opinions from everybody. One thing about Bill is he always listened to everybody, coaches and scouts -- and even younger guys like me when I first started.

“It doesn't mean he’s always going to go with what you said, but he always listened, which was great. We just worked the process, and we always stayed true to the process.”

The Chargers drafted well under the direction of Telesco in 2013, selecting right tackle D.J. Fluker in the first round, linebacker Manti Te’o in the second and offensive rookie of the year candidate Keenan Allen in the third round -- all key contributors in their first season.

Along with those picks, Telesco found some bargains in free agency, signing running back Danny Woodhead and offensive tackle King Dunlap to two-year deals, and offensive lineman Chad Rinehart to a one-year deal.

Rinehart returned to the Chargers on a two-year deal before the onset of free agency.

However, everything did not go perfectly. Telesco’s top free-agent signing, cornerback Derek Cox, struggled through the first half of the season, and was eventually replaced by Richard Marshall.

Signed to a $20 million, four-year deal, the Chargers released Cox last week, saving $1.65 million in cap space and $4.25 million in cash.

“All the decisions that we make in this business, you’re never right all the time,” Telesco said. “And you try and learn.”

With free agency set to begin this week, the Chargers have little cap space to make a big splash. So expect Telesco to use his seven draft picks wisely, and once again spend sensibly in free agency in pursuit of building the Chargers into a perennial Super Bowl contender.
Whether it's a marquee QB or an interior defensive lineman, no team can afford to lose its most valuable player.

So, who steps in if the unfathomable happens? Our NFL Nation reporters and Scouts Inc.'s Steve Muench and Kevin Weidl have teamed up to identify each team's most important player and which player in the 2014 draft each team can target to groom as a potential replacement -- MVP insurance. For some teams, their future stars may be slightly younger than others as draft-eligible non-seniors are denoted with an asterisk.

Quarterback Philip Rivers is the best player on the San Diego Chargers.

But perhaps the most important player for San Diego’s offense is running back Ryan Mathews. The Chargers got an up-close look at the impact Mathews has on the team’s success when he was limited to just five carries for 26 yards because of a severe ankle sprain in San Diego’s 24-17 AFC divisional playoff loss to Denver.

The Chargers had morphed into an efficient, ball-control offense led by the physical running style of Mathews. The Fresno State product played a full, 16-game season for the first time in his NFL career in 2013, finishing with career highs in rushing attempts (285) and rushing yards (1,255) during the regular season.

The Chargers finished 7-1 in games that Mathews ran the ball at least 19 times during the regular season.

Mathews enters the final year of his rookie contract in 2014. Running back Danny Woodhead provides a nice complement to Mathews, with his ability to catch the ball out of the backfield in passing situations. And Ronnie Brown is a physical runner in between the tackles. But the Chargers do not have a similar style runner to replace Mathews if he gets injured, which affects San Diego’s ability to operate at a high level on offense.
Arrow indicates direction team is trending.

Final Power Ranking: 12
Preseason Power Ranking: 23

Biggest surprise: The production from rookie receiver Keenan Allen is the headline here, with the turnaround of quarterback Philip Rivers a close second. The rookie season of Allen, picked in the third round of 2013 draft, was supposed to be a redshirt year. But season-ending injuries to Malcom Floyd and Danario Alexander forced the Cal product to play sooner rather than later. After a sluggish start, Allen responded. He finished the regular season with 71 receptions for 1,046 yards, and tied for the team lead in touchdowns with eight. Allen finished with eight catches for 183 yards and two touchdowns in the postseason, emerging as an offensive rookie of the year candidate and San Diego's No. 1 receiver.

Biggest disappointment: Cornerback Derek Cox signed a four-year, $20 million deal with the Chargers in free agency as the team's top cornerback but failed to live up to that expectation. Cox gave up several big plays and was one of the reasons San Diego's secondary struggled during the first half of the season. Cox ultimately was replaced in the starting lineup by veteran Richard Marshall in Week 13.

Biggest need: More talent in the secondary, with a pass rush help and beefing up the interior of the offensive line a close second. The Chargers gave up 23 passing touchdowns this season, No. 12 in the NFL, but 18 of those came in the first 11 games of the season. And San Diego also finished with just 11 interceptions on the season, No. 26 in the league. Veteran safety Eric Weddle played solid, mistake-free football for the most part in earning his second Pro Bowl berth, but he needs help. Shareece Wright gradually played better in his first season as a starter, but overall San Diego needs to add more young talent in the secondary.

Team MVP: Rivers elevated the play of the entire offense and deserves to be part of the conversation of league MVP. In his 10th season, Rivers benefited from former offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt's conversion of San Diego's offense to a short passing game. Rivers finished in the top five in completion percentage (69.5 percent), yards per pass (8.23), passing yards (4,478), passing touchdowns (32) and passer rating (105.5). At 32 years old, Rivers looks like he still has the ability to play a few more years at an elite level. The Chargers need to add a couple of more pieces on offense to make his job easier.

SAN DIEGO -- Back-to-back weeks in the postseason, San Diego Chargers running back Ryan Mathews tried to play through the pain of a severe ankle sprain that forced him to miss most of the practice week.

Mathews never made it past a few plays in the second half of either contest. But the fact that he had the mental mindset and physical strength to play through the nagging injury shows how far Mathews has come in his fourth NFL season.
Mathews finished with a career-high 1,255 rushing yards during the regular season, and was voted by his teammates as San Diego's offensive player of the year.

Mathews sustained the injury in the second half of San Diego's game against Oakland on Dec. 22.

“It was tough because I wanted to be out there every play, just to help them,” Mathews told reporters on Monday. “Just to see them fight back, and just fight, fight and fight -- and to be able to come back in the fourth quarter -- and to just be able to make a run for the win is incredible. For me, it's just hard to watch that.

“But I'm just going to keep getting better. I have a plan. And the plan is to just keep doing what I'm doing, and to better myself so we can take it farther.”

Mathews said daily work with Chargers strength and conditioning coach Kent Johnson helped him make it through a full, 16-game season for the first time in his pro career.

“I'm just going to train and get better,” Mathews said. “There's a lot of stuff I have to work on. The strength and conditioning coaches, they got me right that last offseason, and it can only go up from here. And so that's what I plan to do.”

Mathews wasn't the only San Diego player dealing with an injury against Denver, as linebacker Manti Te'o, safety Marcus Gilchrist and linebacker Donald Butler all suffered concussions.

Te'o and Gilchrist had to leave the game because of the injury. Butler finished the game; his concussion was not diagnosed until after the contest.

DENVER -- A few thoughts on the San Diego Chargers' 24-17 loss to the Denver Broncos in the AFC divisional round.

What it means: The Broncos closed the door on San Diego’s Cinderella season, but the Chargers provided a bit of a scare for Denver late by scoring all 17 of their points in the fourth quarter. San Diego’s banged-up offense struggled to move the ball early. The Chargers had just 259 total yards. The Chargers finished 9-7 in the regular season and 1-1 in the postseason.

Chargers limp to the finish: San Diego could not overcome several injuries that left the Chargers shorthanded. Running back Ryan Mathews tried to play through a balky left ankle injury. However, Mathews was mostly ineffective, finishing with 26 yards on five carries. Mathews did not play in the second half. Right guard Jeromey Clary was inactive due to a shoulder injury, with Johnnie Troutman replacing him at right guard. Linebacker Manti Te'o (concussion), safety Marcus Gilchrist (shoulder) and punter Mike Scifres (back) all suffered injuries during the game. Te'o did not return.

Rivers faces pressure: Playing behind a makeshift offensive line, Philip Rivers was under pressure most of the contest. Rivers was sacked four times, finishing with 217 passing yards and two touchdown passes. Once again, Keenan Allen was Rivers’ favorite target, finishing with six catches for 142 yards and two touchdown catches. Allen became the first rookie with 100-plus receiving yards and two touchdown receptions in a playoff game since Willie Green against Dallas in 1992.

Penalty watch: San Diego coach Mike McCoy’s team has usually been a disciplined group, but the Chargers finished with eight penalties for 63 yards, including four neutral zone infractions.

Stock watch: Undrafted rookie free agent safety Jahleel Addae was one of the few bright spots for the Chargers. He finished with a team-high eight combined tackles, and also forced Denver tight end Julius Thomas to fumble, which was recovered by cornerback Richard Marshall. The play kept the Chargers in the game in the first half.

What’s next: San Diego begins preparing for the draft.
SAN DIEGO -- Running back Ryan Mathews was not on the practice field for the early portion of practice on Friday, the first time he’s missed a Friday practice since suffering an ankle injury against Oakland three weeks ago.

Mathews’ absence is not a good sign for the San Diego Chargers, who need the bruising running back available to provide balance offensively.

Mathews ran for 127 yards, including a 23-yard touchdown, in a 27-20 win against Denver in December. If Mathews can’t go, Danny Woodhead and Ronnie Brown likely will split carries at running back for San Diego.

Mathews appeared to tweak his ankle against Cincinnati last week. He carried the ball only one time in the second half of San Diego’s 27-10 playoff win against the Bengals.

Along with Mathews, guard Jeromey Clary (shoulder) and receiver Eddie Royal (toe) are not practicing on Friday.

The Chargers did receive some good news, with center Nick Hardwick (concussion) clearing the NFL’s concussion protocol and returning to practice on Friday. Hardwick had a helmet and went through individual drills with the first-unit offensive line during the early portion of practice, while Clary watched on the side.

Right tackle D.J. Fluker (ankle) also practiced for a second straight day.

When the 2013 season began, the AFC West didn't really come up when the national conversation turned toward divisions that would provide the most playoff teams or Super Bowl potential from top to bottom.

Yet with four teams left in the AFC's postseason bracket, two of them call the division home, with the No. 1 seed Denver Broncos and the No. 6 San Diego Chargers set for the season’s third meeting on Sunday. They split the two games in the regular season, with each team winning on the road -- the Broncos by eight in San Diego and the Chargers by seven in Denver.

It will be the first time the Chargers and Broncos have met in the postseason, but San Diego is 2-0 in playoff games against Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning with wins in the 2007 and 2008 postseasons. Chargers reporter Eric Williams and Broncos reporter Jeff Legwold discuss the matchup.

Jeff Legwold: Eric, there were some who questioned the Chargers’ playoff worthiness when all of the dominoes fell in the regular season’s final week and they earned the AFC’s No. 6 seed. But with the win in Cincinnati, how do they see themselves at the moment -- playoff underdog or a team with a chance for more?

Eric Williams: Veteran players emphasized this week that playoff opportunities are precious, noting the fact that the Chargers have not made the playoffs since 2009. So guys like Philip Rivers and Eric Weddle want to see how far they can take it. Both mentioned the Chargers are only eight quarters away from the Super Bowl -- unbelievable when six weeks ago this team was 5-7 and an afterthought at making the postseason. Giving players more confidence is the fact that San Diego beat the Broncos in Denver just a month ago. The Chargers understand the deck is stacked against them facing a well-rested Manning. But they are playing with house money, and I suspect they will play with a lot of confidence and urgency on Sunday.

How is Manning handling all of the questions concerning his so-so record in the playoffs? And will that serve as motivation on Sunday?

Legwold: If you had to make a list of questions that cause Manning to put up the verbal deflector shields the fastest, the glove, anything that includes the phrase “all the way back," cold weather and the playoff record would be among the top items. He handles most everything in the public domain with a professional mixture of grace and the ability to move the conversation on -- he’s got plenty of experience in front of people to be sure. But in the end, Manning is a driven player -- one of the most driven players to have worn a helmet -- and everything is motivation. He doesn’t often let people on the outside see all that, but offered a glimpse after his 400-yard day against the Titans this season on a frigid afternoon when he told the team’s flagship radio station people could take the Manning-struggles-in-the-cold narrative and “stick it where the sun don't shine." So, the lure of the Super Bowl is always powerful for him, but he certainly uses plenty of things to maintain his focus, and any sort of criticism is in that pile somewhere.

Rivers has always been a thorn for the Broncos, but he attempted only 20 passes -- completing 12 -- in the Chargers’ win in Denver on Dec. 12, and he went 12-for-16 passing in the Chargers’ win over the Bengals last week. Is relying on the run the best thing for the Chargers’ offense, and would you expect a similar approach Sunday?

Williams: It all depends on the health of Ryan Mathews. The Fresno State product probably does not get enough credit for San Diego’s resurgence this season. But the Chargers have morphed into a running team the second half of the year. San Diego is 7-1 when Mathews rushes at least 19 times in a game. His ability to get to the edge of a defense with his speed, along with his physicality, has created a nice balance to San Diego’s offense so that Rivers doesn’t have to make all the plays. Mathews has a lingering ankle injury. He’s expected to play on Sunday, but how effective Mathews will be remains to be seen. If Mathews can’t play, Danny Woodhead and Ronnie Brown will pick up the slack. San Diego coach Mike McCoy has confidence his team can win in a shootout if they have to open the offense up.

You’ve talked about Denver’s inconsistencies on defense, which has been a problem all season. Will Champ Bailey play in this game? And if so, how will that help the secondary?

Legwold: Bailey played, essentially as the nickel corner, in the Broncos’ final two games of the regular season and will be in the lineup on Sunday. He played 35 snaps against the Houston Texans and 22 snaps against the Oakland Raiders. While those offenses had their fair share of struggles this season, the Broncos had two of their best outings of the year, surrendering 13 and 14 points to go with 240 and 255 yards, respectively, in those two games. Bailey hasn’t played out of the slot a great deal in his time with the Broncos, save for when the receiver he was matched with would line up there, but he has all the tools to be very good in there -- smart, plays with anticipation and has the ability, even in his 15th season, to change directions quickly and react on the ball. It has made the Broncos' secondary much better than what the Chargers have seen in the two meetings this year -- Bailey didn’t play in either game. The Broncos just have more options in how they deploy people in coverage and it gives them a top three at the position of Bailey, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and Chris Harris. That’s a quality trio that enables the Broncos to do a few more things to try to affect Rivers.

Chargers defensive coordinator John Pagano has, for the most part, taken a page from the Bill Belichick manual for facing Manning -- coverage over pressure. How would you expect the Chargers to defend Manning and the Broncos’ offense? And how aggressive do you think they will be doing it?

Williams: I expect going in that Pagano will try a similar approach to what his defense executed so effectively in the last matchup: a mix of pressures and looks that force Manning to get the ball out quickly to underneath routes, and then rallying to the football. San Diego wants to limit big plays, keep the ball in front of them and tackle well. But one thing the Chargers have had success with is making in-game adjustments when things are not going well. The wild card here again is McCoy. Because he’s worked with Manning in the past, McCoy understands his strengths and weaknesses, and what he likes to go to in certain situations. And that will be used in Pagano’s game planning for Sunday.

San Diego surprised the Broncos a month ago by winning in Denver. What did the Broncos learn from that setback? And what are a couple key things Denver needs to accomplish in order to defeat the pesky Chargers and move on?

Legwold: That game came on a short week and you could see the table getting set for a Broncos' loss in the days leading up to the Dec. 12 win for the Chargers. Many of the Broncos players spent a great deal of time talking about how much they didn’t like playing on Thursday nights, how good the rest would be in the weekend that followed. And then they played like a team more concerned about just getting through a game than winning it. There have been no such issues this week. The Broncos will be focused on the task at hand this time. On the field, they have to keep the Chargers from converting third downs and putting drives together. San Diego repeatedly pounded away in the run game at the Broncos' lighter personnel groupings, particularly in the nickel, and the Broncos can’t allow that to happen again. The Chargers' defense was effective rushing Manning over the left side -- especially between left tackle Chris Clark and left guard Zane Beadles. This time, if the Broncos keep Manning cleaner on his blind side, they will move the ball.

SAN DIEGO -- For a second straight day, running back Ryan Mathews and center Nick Hardwick did not practice for the San Diego Chargers, creating some uncertainty that they will be available for Sunday’s AFC divisional round contest at Denver.

Mathews continues to wear a protective walking boot on his ailing left ankle to speed up the healing process. Hardwick sported a baseball cap and jersey while watching his position group go through individual drills during the early stages of practice.

San Diego coach Mike McCoy provided no timetable for either player's return. However, McCoy indicated on Wednesday that Mathews was on the same management program by the team’s training staff as the last two weeks, sitting out on Wednesday and Thursday, working as a limited participant on Friday, and playing on Sunday.

Hardwick has yet to pass the NFL’s concussion protocol.

Along with those two, receiver Eddie Royal (toe) and guard Jeromey Clary (shoulder) did not practice. But right tackle D.J. Fluker (ankle) returned as a limited participant after missing practice on Wednesday.

Defensive tackle Sean Lissemore (shoulder) also was a limited participant on Thursday, and left tackle King Dunlap (ankle), defensive end Kendall Reyes (ankle), and safety Eric Weddle (hamstring) were full participants.

Weddle missed practice on Wednesday as a rest day.
SAN DIEGO -- As expected, San Diego Chargers head coach Mike McCoy failed to shed any light on the status of the team's every-down running back, Ryan Mathews.

Asked if Mathews, who has been dealing with an ailing ankle for the past three weeks, would play in his team’s AFC divisional round contest at Denver on Sunday, McCoy wouldn’t bite.

“I think we had this discussion last week,” McCoy said. “I’ll give you an update as the week goes along.”

OK, so will Mathews practice on Wednesday?

“I’ll let you know on Wednesday,” McCoy said.

McCoy’s approach to offering information on his team’s injury situation all season has been to provide as little information as possible, therefore providing his opponent as little information as possible on his team’s most important players.

Mathews entered the AFC wild-card contest against Cincinnati with a balky ankle. He did not practice on Wednesday or Thursday heading into the contest, wearing a protective boot on his left ankle to help the injury heal.

Mathews was a limited participant at practice on Friday, and listed as probable for the Cincinnati game. Mathews rushed for 52 yards on 13 carries against the Bengals, but gave way to Danny Woodhead and Ronnie Brown after one carry in the second half.

Mathews suffered the injury on Dec. 22 against Oakland. After receiving treatment for the injury, Mathews returned to the contest in the second half against the Raiders.

The Chargers rushed for a season-high 196 yards in a 27-10 win against Cincinnati. The last time San Diego played Denver, a 27-20 win, Mathews ran for 127 yards on 29 carries, including a 23-yard touchdown run.

Mathews, 26, is having his best season as a pro. He played a full, 16-game season for the first time in four NFL seasons, finishing with a career-high 1,255 yards and seven total touchdowns during the regular season.

Mathews’ injury status for Sunday’s game is important because he’s been a focal part of San Diego’s success offensively in the second half of the season. In games Mathews has rushed at least 19 times, the Chargers are 7-1.

McCoy would not say if his team's game plan would change if Mathews can’t play on Sunday.

“We’re going to put a game plan in that we think is best to win this football game,” McCoy said. “And we’ll play with whoever we’ve got.”
SAN DIEGO -- As expected, workhorse running back Ryan Mathews returned to practice Friday for the San Diego Chargers.

Just like last week, Mathews missed practice with an ankle issue the first two days of the work week but was a limited participant Friday. Mathews is probable for Sunday's AFC wild-card game at Cincinnati.

Receiver Eddie Royal was the only player who did not practice for San Diego. Royal is questionable for Sunday's game with lingering toe issue, but likely will play. Defensive lineman Sean Lissemore was a limited participant due to a shoulder injury, and also is questionable for the Cincinnati game.

Defensive end Kendall Reyes was a full participant with an ankle issue. Reyes is listed as probable.

The Chargers have several players available for Sunday's contest who did not play in the first matchup against the Bengals. They include receiver Royal, linebackers Melvin Ingram and Jarret Johnson and left tackle King Dunlap.

"Any game that you can play with your full roster, those are the guys you were counting on," San Diego coach Mike McCoy said. "Unfortunately that happened last time. But hey, that's all part of the deal. We've got good depth on this team, guys have stepped up all year long and that's the key."

As they usually have done for games on the East Coast, the Chargers loaded up the bus and headed for the airport for an afternoon flight, with an expected arrival in Cincinnati sometime late Friday evening.

"We talked about our approach to the game," McCoy said, when asked what he told players at the end of practice. "We had a great week of practice, and that's the most important thing. I told the players to have a great week of practice, have confidence in what you're doing and go cut it loose."

The last time the San Diego Chargers and Cincinnati Bengals met, both teams were missing key players, they played in a local TV blackout, and they could comfortably compete on a 60-degree, postcard-perfect Southern California afternoon.

Those were the conditions just one month ago Wednesday.

At least one of them could be the same. With ticket uncertainty rolling over into Thursday, Bengals officials have been working hard to avoid the NFL's first postseason blackout since 2002. On the field, the Bengals and Chargers have been working to get back key members of their teams, and are anticipating playing in conditions much less favorable than what they had on the West Coast.

Sunday's playoff game isn't only a rematch of the regular-season game won 17-10 by the Bengals. It also marks the first time the teams have met in the postseason since 1981, when Cincinnati beat San Diego for the AFC championship at old Riverfront Stadium. Because of a minus-59 wind chill, that game was dubbed the "Freezer Bowl." While it shouldn't feel that cold Sunday, conditions will be tough. Snow, freezing rain and rapidly dipping temperatures are in the forecast. The weather could make passing difficult for two teams that rely heavily on their quarterbacks.

To break down Sunday's game, we turn to NFL reporters Eric D. Williams (Chargers) and Coley Harvey (Bengals).

Harvey: One of the Bengals' biggest keys in the first meeting was running the ball. They rushed for 164 yards, having success even late in the game when San Diego clearly knew a run was coming. How can the Chargers prevent Cincinnati from having another prolific ground game?

Williams: First, the Chargers will have two players available who did not play in the first game -- outside linebackers Jarret Johnson and Melvin Ingram. Both are pretty good run defenders who should help San Diego play more physical up front. Second, the Chargers have to do a better job of maintaining their gaps and not allowing Cincinnati’s talented offensive line to create space for the running backs. Last, the Chargers have to do a better job of wrapping up BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Giovani Bernard. Both running backs finished with a lot of yards after contact, as San Diego had trouble bringing down the hard runners in the back end of the defense.

One thing I'm curious about is the Bengals' defense. The Bengals are tied for third in the league in turnovers forced with 31, and have six defensive touchdowns this season, all at Paul Brown Stadium. Why has Cincinnati’s defense been so successful at creating turnovers?

Harvey: If you ask defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer -- which we did Monday -- he'll say it's because his players just know they have to do whatever is necessary to pick the offense up and to put the ball back in its hands. There have been several instances when a turnover put the Bengals' defense on the wrong side of the 50, needing to come up with a stop. Defensive players say they relish those opportunities, and believe in their ability to not only hold for a field goal, but get the ball back. Cincinnati's defensive line plays a major role in helping create a lot of the fumbles and interceptions. Even after losing Pro Bowl tackle Geno Atkins, the defensive line has still pressured opposing quarterbacks, forcing poorly thrown balls. The line and linebackers also do a great job of stripping balls and forcing timely fumbles.

I'll add that there is something slightly different about the defense at home. When it comes to turnovers, for example, 21 of the 31 forced by the defense have come at Paul Brown Stadium. As you mentioned, six have resulted in scores. Each of those scores either changed momentum or helped ice the game.

How much do you think playing the Bengals just 35 days ago will benefit the Chargers? They clearly learned something from that loss, and haven’t lost since.

Williams: That is correct -- the Chargers are on a four-game winning streak since losing to the Bengals on Dec. 1. Defensively the Chargers have been stingy, holding teams to just 18 points a contest in the past four games. San Diego has played more consistently on offense, particularly in the red zone, scoring touchdowns instead of field goals. And the Chargers are playing with more confidence now than earlier in the season. Chargers coach Mike McCoy has figured out a blueprint for his team to win on both offense and defense -- a prolific, ball-control offense paired with a bend-but-don’t-break defense that keeps teams out of the end zone.

Philip Rivers finished the regular season tops in the NFL in completion percentage (69.5), fourth in touchdown passes (32) and fifth in passing yards (4,478). The Bengals did a nice job containing Rivers in the first matchup. What will it take for a repeat performance?

Harvey: It's going to take a lot of pressure, and some tight coverage both downfield and near the line of scrimmage. Bengals cornerback Terence Newman was telling reporters this week about what he felt made Rivers special -- his intelligence. As an 11-year veteran, Newman has seen it all. According to Newman, what is most impressive is Rivers' ability to use his eyes to steer linebackers or safeties one way, only to pass another because he knows he has a tight end or running back open in a soft spot the defense isn't covering. Newman stopped short of comparing Rivers to Peyton Manning, but he believes the two have much in common. Members of the Bengals' secondary know they can't just key on his eyes, they have to know where his playmakers are at all times. Members of the Bengals' line know they have to keep hounding Rivers like they have hounded quarterbacks all season.

Rivers is San Diego's household name, but how important have running back Ryan Mathews and receiver Keenan Allen been to the offense?

Williams: The Chargers leaned heavily on Mathews during the second half of the season, with good results. San Diego is 7-1 this season when Mathews has at least 19 carries. He has carried the ball at least 24 times in the past four games, all wins for San Diego. Allen finished the season with 71 receptions for a team-leading 1,046 yards, becoming the first rookie since Cincinnati’s A.J. Green to finish with 1,000 receiving yards. Green had 1,057 in 2011. Mathews keeps defenses honest with his bruising running style, and Allen emerged as Rivers’ go-to receiver when San Diego gets near the red zone. Allen is tied for the team lead in touchdown receptions with eight.

We've seen the good (33 touchdowns) and the bad (20 interceptions) from Andy Dalton this season. What type of performance do you expect from Dalton on Sunday? And will it matter if he does not play well?

Harvey: Because of how good this defense is, especially at home, I'm not sure it will matter if he plays well Sunday. Last week against the Ravens, Dalton threw four interceptions -- the first came 1 yard outside Baltimore's red zone -- and the defense ended up acting as an eraser and pretending the turnovers never happened. The one interception that came on Cincinnati's 21 resulted in a field goal. An interception on the following drive also resulted in a field goal. Instead of being down 14-0 early, the Bengals trailed 6-0, giving Dalton enough confidence to calm down and make plays when he needed to as the comeback began. I'm expecting another mixed bag from Dalton. Just like last week, he has shown this season that he can pass for 270 yards, three touchdowns and still have three interceptions. I wouldn't be surprised if his nerves are elevated a little at the start of the game, but as long as the defense keeps playing the way it has been and his receivers are not dropping passes, I believe Dalton will come out OK on Sunday.

SAN DIEGO -- Chargers head coach Mike McCoy didn't appear too concerned about running back Ryan Mathews not practicing for a second straight day on Thursday due to a lingering ankle injury.

“He's on the same plan that he was on last week,” McCoy said. “He did the same thing -- he missed Wednesday and Thursday, and then came out Friday and practiced, and he had an outstanding game.”

Along with Mathews, receiver Eddie Royal (toe) did not practice on Thursday. However, Royal is expected to play as well against Cincinnati on Sunday.

Defensive lineman Kendall Reyes (ankle) was a full participant in practice on Thursday. Reyes was a limited on Wednesday. And for a second straight day, Sean Lissemore (shoulder) was a full participant.

With all their starters projected to play against Cincinnati, the Chargers remain the healthiest they've been all season.
SAN DIEGO -- Running back Ryan Mathews was one of two players listed as not practicing on the San Diego Chargers' injury report Wednesday.

Mathews wore a protective boot on his injured left ankle coming off of the field at the end of practice. But he says that everything is fine. Mathews did not practice most of last week but still played against Kansas City, rushing for a season-high 144 yards on 24 carries.

"I'm fine," Mathews said. "I'm good. You just have to stay in it mentally."

Along with Mathews, receiver Eddie Royal (toe) did not practice. But both are expected to play Sunday in Cincinnati.

Defensive linemen Sean Lissemore (shoulder) and Kendal Reyes (ankle) were limited in practice.

Outside linebacker Thomas Keiser did not make himself available to reporters in the locker room after practice to discuss his recent arrest.

San Diego coach Mike McCoy said the team is handling Keiser's situation internally. Keiser did practice Wednesday and is expected to play on Sunday.

"We discussed it early Monday morning -- that's the first thing we did in the team meeting," McCoy said. "We addressed it, said 'Here's how we're handling it.' And we're moving on."

Keiser, 24, was arrested over the weekend on a misdemeanor battery charge after an altercation with another man in a restaurant that turned into a fight Sunday after San Diego's overtime win over Kansas City.

"Thomas is our teammate, our family and we support him," safety Eric Weddle said. "And until they figure all of that out we're worried about the Bengals."



Thursday, 11/27
Sunday, 11/30
Monday, 12/1