Ryan Mathews will sit out with a sprained ankle, the second time this season he will miss a game due to injury. Mike Tolbert, who leads the team in rushing yards (395) and rushing TDs (seven), will get the start instead. Darren Sproles will also see more action; he has at least four catches in three of the last four games and leads the team with 5.0 yards per carry.
The Broncos will hit the field led by one of the best run stuffers in Chargers history, Jamal Williams (22 tackles). However, his presence has not fixed Denver's porous run defense, which is third worst in the NFL (143.1 yards per game).
QB Philip Rivers
Philip Rivers (2,944 yards) is on pace to break Dan Marino's single-season passing yardage record. The return of Malcom Floyd from a hamstring injury should certainly help that quest. Floyd ranked in the top five in receiving yards before getting hurt. Floyd's sidekick, Legedu Naanee, is still likely another week away, so Patrick Crayton (25 catches, 409 yards) will make his second start of the season.
Antonio Gates will be a game-time decision with a foot injury. He has yet to get through a full practice since tearing his plantar fascia last month, although he has done some running drills. It would be a huge boost to the offense if Gates can play, especially with Naanee and Vincent Jackson (disciplinary reasons) out one more week. Gates' presence would also help if tight end Kris Wilson — who is questionable with a back injury — is unable to go.
When the Broncos Run
The Broncos rank last in the league in rushing offense (76.8 yards per game) and yards per carry (3.2). Those stats, however, are a little deceiving, as Denver uses a lot of short passes and wide receiver screens in place of traditional runs. But the fact remains the Broncos will do the bulk of their damage through the air.
The Chargers have the second-best run defense in the AFC, allowing less than 90 yards per game. The front seven should be even better with the return of thumper Brandon Siler, who comes back after missing the last two games with a foot injury. It will also help if Travis Johnson is able to go; he is listed as questionable with a shoulder injury but has a history of playing through pain.
When the Broncos Pass
Outside of Rivers, perhaps no quarterback is having a better season than Kyle Orton. Denver's signal caller entered Week 11 ranked second with 2,806 passing yards and leads the NFL in completions over 40 yards (10). He loves to spread the ball around, too, with three receivers with at least 43 grabs: Brandon Lloyd, Jabar Gaffney and Eddie Royal.
The key for the Chargers is to get in Orton's face and prevent him from getting comfortable in the pocket. Shaun Phillips leads the team with seven sacks, although he has just one in the last five games. Larry English is still working his way back from foot surgery but should be healthy enough to make an impact.
Just for Kicks
The Chargers' Nate Kaeding returns after missing the past three games with a groin injury. He is money when kicking at Qualcomm Stadium. The returns of Siler and English will also help the special teams, specifically punting and kickoff coverage.
The Broncos are not dominant on special teams, but the Chargers are familiar with Royal's work as a return man. In last season's meeting in San Diego, he returned a kickoff and a punt for touchdowns as Denver pulled off the upset.
How much will the Chargers miss Ryan Mathews? Discuss in the message boards.
Michael Lombardo is a member of the Pro Football Writers of America and a long-time contributor to the Scout.com network. His analysis has been published by the NFL Network, Fox Sports and MySpace Sports. He has followed the Chargers for more than 15 years and covered the team since 2003. You can see more of his updates by following him on twitter.
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