RB Ryan Mathews (Stephen Dunn/Getty)
Most point to the improved play of Philip Rivers as the reason for the Chargers' late-season turnaround. While that's true, don't overlook the contributions of second-year running back Ryan Mathews.
Ryan Mathews will be challenged by the Ravens' stiff defense on Sunday night, but he's been on quite a roll. Mathews has rushed for at least 100 yards in three straight games, collecting 114 yards in the Chargers' second straight win, Sunday's 37-10 conquest of Buffalo.
Mathews, who the Chargers moved up in the 2010 draft to select at No. 12, had but one 100-yard game in his rookie year. It was an uneven season, marked by flashes of brilliance, but it also exposed his shortcomings in ball security and pass protection.
Mathews has improved, although he has lost two fumbles this season. His pass blocking is better as well.
"He's doing a great job of protecting the ball," coach Norv Turner said.
What Mathews has learned is to give praise to others. He's quick to mention the blocking of his front line when having a solid game. But many of his yards come from his cutback moves and his ability to get to the second level of the defense. Once he's in the open field, Mathews is difficult to bring down.
With Mathews, and the offense rising, the Chargers' playoff hopes remain alive. With three games remaining the Chargers trail the AFC West-leading Broncos by two games.
December is usually a good month for Rivers and this year is no different. Rivers faces the Ravens with a 22-2 starting record in the holiday month.
And Turner, who was riding the hot seat during the six-game losing streak, is now 19-2 with the Chargers in December and January.
But the Chargers know two things: they can't afford another loss and they face a stiff test against the visiting Ravens.
"It's a great opportunity for our guys," Turner said. "They're a very physical team, they can run the ball, they got a great defense and they're extremely well-coached and have a great kicking game. It's going to be exciting. We got Baltimore coming in and we have to find a way to beat them."
LINEUP WATCH: Left tackle Jared Gaither fell into the Chargers' lap at just at the right time. Days after being cut by the Chiefs, Gaither was signed by the Chargers. They were hurting at this crucial spot with Pro Bowler Marcus McNeill going to injured reserve with a concussion and Brandyn Dombrowski, his backup, being down with a sprained ankle. Gaither was forced into the starting lineup against the Jaguars and played so well that he started again against Buffalo, despite Dombrowski being fit. Look for Gaither to stay with the first team as he's been impressive in his short Chargers stint.
BY THE NUMBERS: The Chargers' final three-game stretch is against some stiff competition, after they got well defeating the lowly Jaguars and Bills. Up next are the Ravens (10-3), Lions (8-5) and Raiders (7-6), with the final two games on the road. The Chargers have lost four of their last five against the Ravens and have dropped three straight to the Raiders. The Chargers do own a six-game winning streak against the Lions.
--TE Antonio Gates, with two touchdowns Sunday, has 75 in his career, only the second player at his position to do that in NFL history. Tony Gonzalez leads with 95 scoring catches.
--DE Jacques Cesaire (ankle) left Sunday's game in the first half on a cart and never returned. Cesaire was bothered with knee injuries earlier this season.
--S Eric Weddle continues his solid season, recording his seventh interception. Weddle is among the NFL's leaders and is three picks shy of the Chargers' single-season record set by Antonio Cromartie.
--ILB Takeo Spikes continues to be among the Chargers' biggest defensive contributors. Spikes is the team's leading tackler and has eclipsed the 100-tackle mark for the 11th season and fifth time in the last six years.
--DE Luis Castillo was placed on injured reserve after the Chargers kept a roster spot open for him most the season after he broke his leg in the opener.