TV: CBS, Marv Albert, Rich Gannon
PREDICTION: Chargers 31-20
KEYS TO THE GAME: The Broncos won't face the same type of aerial bombardment they did at Green Bay last week unless TE Antonio Gates (foot) and WR Vincent Jackson (hamstring) get healthy in a hurry; Jackson is far more likely to play. That won't spare them from the challenge of slowing QB Philip Rivers and RB Ryan Mathews. Mathews had 149 yards from scrimmage in each of his last two games and went for 120 and three touchdowns at Denver in Week 17 last season. The Broncos' defense has been whipped on third down and in the red zone. To shake mediocrity on offense, pressure falls to the front five to spring RBs Willis McGahee and Knowshon Moreno to then give QB Kyle Orton room to attack downfield.
FAST FACTS: Rivers is 8-2 vs. Denver with 18 touchdowns and five interceptions. ... The Broncos have lost eight of the last 10 meetings.
INSIDE THE CAMPS
Looking at Sunday's matchup between the Chargers' offense and the Broncos' defense, it's easy to speculate that San Diego quarterback Philip Rivers is in for a big day.
Denver is one game removed from being carved up by the Packers' Aaron Rodgers, so what's there not for Rivers to like? And Rivers is feeling upbeat after coming off his first turnover-free contest of the season.
Rivers is heating up, but the biggest factor in the game may be the emergence of Chargers running back Ryan Mathews. The Broncos are vulnerable on the ground, allowing 103 rushing yards per game, as well as through the air, permitting nearly 378 yards per contest.
Mathews, who has a team-high 288 rushing yards and 19 catches for 254 yards, was splitting his role with Mike Tolbert earlier this year. But since Tolbert committed a key fourth-quarter fumble in the loss at New England and was slowed by a slight calf injury, Mathews has seized the opportunity.
The 2010 first-round pick is starting to play to his pedigree with his rushing and receiving. He's totaled nearly 300 combined yards in his last two games. In each of his last five games, he has at least 100 combined yards.
He's averaging 16 carries a game, but coach Norv Turner said he'd like to expand that. Mathews is on pace to produce 2,168 total yards, and an increased workload could lift those projections.
"If we can get him in that 24- to 25-carry range," Turner said, "it's going to help him."
Tolbert is far from being pushed aside. And an increased role for Mathews would keep Tolbert fresher, as the majority of his yards are from physical running.
Add in the uncertainty around the Chargers' passing game this week -- tight end Antonio Gates (foot) is likely out, and Vincent Jackson (hamstring) won't be at 100 percent -- and it makes sense to lean on the running game, led by a productive Mathews. His three touchdowns, all rushing, are second most among the Chargers; Tolbert leads with four.
Mathews' strides can also be seen in pass production and ball security, two of his shortcomings last season that cut into his participation. The coaches' confidence in Mathews is growing, as is his ability to play with more discipline and patience with his reads.
DE Elvis Dumervil
Dumervil injured his right shoulder during Week 1 and has been playing catch-up ever since. He was inactive for two weeks before playing last Sunday against Green Bay, hitting Aaron Rodgers once.
Dumervil, who missed all last season with a chest muscle tear, continues to search for his first sack since 2009, when he led the NFL in that category with 17.
"I'd rather it happen now than later," Dumervil said Thursday. "But I'm getting better every day. Day in and day out at practice I'm feeling more comfortable. So I'm looking forward to this weekend."
The Broncos host San Diego in a critical AFC West game that could determine whether Denver's season heads completely south.
Dumervil noted his main deficiency as things stand now is "to get more in game shape" and that he's working towards it.
The injury with which he's been dealing makes it difficult for him to redirect inside, using leverage by getting underneath blockers by dipping his right shoulder.
Defensive coordinator Dennis Allen said Dumervil "looked a little rusty" in the Packers game but also sees daily improvement at practice.
"He missed a whole year and then missed a significant portion of the end of training camp and the first part of the season," Allen explained.
"But he'll be the type of player that we want him to be."
Should that occur, it will provide bona fide rushers on both sides, with Miller already accumulating four sacks. It wouldn't hurt to get that kind of production against Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers, who often has gotten comfortable in the pocket vs. Denver and produced high-end results.
"He makes his team go," Dumervil said.
--WR Vincent Jackson (hamstring) returned to practice on Friday. He is listed as probable and should be available for at least a couple dozen plays.
--TE Antonio Gates (foot) didn't practice all week, as expected. The Chargers have shut him down until after the bye week.
--C Nick Hardwick (neck) returned to practice Thursday after sitting out Wednesday. He should start Sunday.
--CB Quentin Jammer (illness) sat out Thursday after practicing Wednesday. It's not believed he suffered a setback with his hamstring, an injury that kept him out of Sunday's game.
--DE Luis Castillo (leg) is out.
--DE Jacques Cesaire (knee) is out.
--OT Orlando Franklin was practicing Thursday, one day after learning of the death of his younger brother and skipping Wednesday afternoon meetings.
--TE Daniel Fells (knee) returned to practice after missing one day. Fells' presence Sunday would give Denver three tight-end options, since Julius Thomas is out again with his high right ankle sprain.
--SS Brian Dawkins and FS Rahim Moore, the two back-end starters on the defense, were missing Thursday. Dawkins is battling an ankle issue. Moore is ill. Denver was down to two safeties on the active roster, pushing David Bruton and Quinton Carter up with the first unit. The team also has Kyle McCarthy in reserve on the practice squad. He played in eight games last season.
--CB Jonathan Wilhite missed his second straight practice due to illness. Any thoughts of tweaking personnel may be over given his absences, leaving Cassius Vaughn, Champ Bailey and Cassius Vaughn as the likely nickel contingent at corner.
--DT Marcus Thomas (groin) is practicing for a second straight week after missing the first four games but, unlike last week, is a full participant. He could rejoin the front-four rotation Sunday but neither coach John Fox or Allen were willing to make that leap publicly.