Chargers' Cinderella Run Will End in Denver Without Ryan Mathews

Gary DavenportNFL AnalystJanuary 7, 2014

DENVER, CO - DECEMBER 12:  Running back Ryan Mathews #24 of the San Diego Chargers runs for a 23-yard touchdown before cornerback Quentin Jammer #23 of the Denver Broncos can make the tackle during the third quarter at Sports Authority Field Field at Mile High on December 12, 2013 in Denver, Colorado. The Chargers defeated the Broncos 27-20. (Photo by Justin Edmonds/Getty Images)
Justin Edmonds/Getty Images

Wild Card weekend was filled with surprises. None were bigger than in Cincinnati, where the San Diego Chargers ran all over a stout Cincinnati defense en route to a 27-10 win.

The biggest surprise inside that surprise was the Chargers gaining nearly 200 yards on the ground without their leading rusher in the game.

For much of last Sunday's contest, Ryan Mathews was conspicuously absent. The Chargers were mum on the subject at the time, but as Michael Gehlken of U-T San Diego reports, it was Mathews' balky ankle that forced the fourth-year pro to the sidelines.

Mathews told Gehlken he'll be ready to face the Denver Broncos this week, stating, “My mindset is I'm playing."

The Bolts had better hope so, because they aren't beating Denver without him.

All the talk has been about Philip Rivers' career resurrection in 2013. Meanwhile, Mathews has quietly had one all his own.

Ryan Mathews 2013

The 26-year-old has rebounded from an injury-marred 2012 to top 1,200 rushing yards for the season. He's set career highs in yards and attempts all while playing in all 16 games for the first time in his career.

Mathews and San Diego's 13th-ranked run game were a big part of the late run that boosted the Chargers into the playoffs.

It was also the deciding factor in San Diego's 27-20 win over the Broncos back in Week 15.

Ryan Mathews vs. Denver Week 15
At Denver

In that game, Mathews carried the ball 29 times for 127 yards and a touchdown. Not only did San Diego move the ball and pick up first downs on the ground, but that ability led to a near 2-to-1 edge in time of possession.

In their two meetings with Denver this season, the Chargers' best defense was their offense. If Peyton Manning's not on the field, he can't score. Once he gets out there though, all bets are off.

Still, the Chargers did post their most yardage on the ground this season a week ago without Mathews. Next man up, right?

Listen, you won't get a bad word from this author about Danny Woodhead. His arrival in San Diego has had much to do with Rivers' revival, and he returned a dimension to the offense sorely missed since Darren Sproles left.

All that aside, Woodhead just isn't a "grind it out," 20 carries a game type of back. He averaged 3.6 yards on 15 carries against the Bengals last week.

That leaves Ronnie Brown, who had eight carries for 77 yards and a score against Cincy. That's the same Ronnie Brown who averaged 3.5 yards a carry this year and didn't carry the ball more than nine times in a game all season.

Without Mathews, the Chargers' odds of sustaining a ground game against Denver's eighth-ranked run defense aren't good. Without that ground game, the Chargers are going to be forced to the air in a game against the most-prolific scoring offense in NFL history.

Trading scores with the Broncos probably isn't the best of ideas.

So get well soon Ryan Mathews.

Because without you, Cinderella's time at the ball is finished.