Ever since LaDainian Tomlinson started to decline after his 2006 MVP season, the San Diego Chargers have been looking for a running back consistently electric enough to provide a similar spark on offense. They became so desperate after averaging a league-low 3.3 yards per carry in 2009 that they traded up to the 12th overall pick in the 2010 draft to select a running back that might have a chance to become the Tomlinson of the next era in San Diego.

But Fresno State’s Ryan Mathews wasn’t ready, and he struggled as a rookie. When he wasn’t injured, he was simply unproductive. And in their first season without Tomlinson, the Chargers missed the playoffs for the first time since 2005. Their running numbers went up, but a lot of that had to do with undrafted bruiser Mike Tolbert, who outperformed Mathews in 2010.

Until this month, the Bolts were just 9-9 with Mathews as their starting running back. And although it looks as though it might be too late to salvage the 2011 season, Mathews has played a huge role in the 180-degree turn San Diego’s campaign has taken in recent weeks.

The Chargers have scored 88 points in their last three games (and 75 in their last two), with Mathews compiling 363 rushing yards on 55 carries (he’s also caught 10 passes for 41 yards). He’s now ranked in the top 10 in the league in rushing and has his yards-per-carry average over 5.0. This after failing to hit the 100-yard mark in all but one game prior to Week 12.

In addition to there being an obvious correlation between Mathews’ emergence and the Chargers’ turnaround, Philip Rivers has finally regained his All-Pro form. The last two games have easily been Rivers’ best of a down year, and he has seven touchdowns and no picks since Mathews busted out Nov. 27 against Denver.

See what a little balance can do?

Now, here’s a bit of a buzz kill: San Diego’s three opponents during Mathews’ hot streak — the Bills, Broncos and Jaguars — have all been average at best against the run this season.┬áSo it’s tough to tell whether Mathews and the Chargers have been in the right places at the right time or whether Mathews truly has turned a corner with the offense at least partially on his back.

Fortunately, an ideal litmus test comes this Sunday night, when they get a crack at the Ravens, who have the league’s second-best run defense in terms of yards per carry and yards per game allowed.

Regardless of what happens over the final three weeks of 2011, this recent stretch of success should give the Chargers enough confidence to enter 2012 with Mathews is their No. 1 back.

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