The Ryan Mathews era begins Monday night when the San Diego Chargers open the 2010 NFL season against the Kansas City Chiefs.

Mathews will be a key player for the 2010 Chargers as he attempts to replace LaDainian Tomlinson, the top running back in franchise history. Tomlinson also is in action Monday night with his new team, the New York Jets.

Mathews, the first-round pick from Fresno State, couldn’t have picked a better opponent for a national television debut than the Chiefs. Kansas City’s run defense has been atrocious the past few years.

Even a worn-down Tomlinson suddenly looked to regain his running skills when Kansas City was the opponent. And how about Cleveland’s Jerome Harrison rushing for 286 yards (third most all-time) against the Chiefs last December?

A fast start in his first NFL game would certainly ease pressure on Mathews and signal he’s ready to be an impact back as a rookie.

The Chargers will face their AFC West divisional rivals without holdouts Vincent Jackson and Marcus McNeill and injured linebacker Shawne Merriman.

It remains to be seen whether the Chargers can adequately replace Jackson, a 1,000-yard receiver the past two seasons. Malcom Floyd had one touchdown last season and might be better suited as a No. 2 receiver than a go-to target.

Brandyn Dombrowski will replace McNeill as the starting left tackle and all eyes will be upon him as the protector of Philip Rivers’ blind side. The San Diego season would be over quickly if Rivers were to ever suffer a major injury.

Merriman hasn’t done much of consequence since 2007 and is no longer a dominant defensive player. His absence won’t be the difference between winning and losing.

The Chiefs figure to be amped while opening at home on the national-television stage. Kansas City is slowly improving and should be able to give the Chargers a game in rabid Arrowhead Stadium.

I’m not convinced Matt Cassel is the right quarterback for Kansas City but the running game should be strong with Jamaal Charles and Thomas Jones splitting the workload. Former Charger Chris Chambers would like nothing better than stuffing a touchdown or two in the organization’s face and Dwayne Bowe has had some impressive games against the Chargers.

Kansas City hopes rookie safety Eric Berry will help shore up the back end and that cornerback Brandon Flowers (five interceptions last season) will continue to progress. Sack artist Tamba Hali (8 1/2 sacks) is solid but the Chiefs badly need defensive tackle Glenn Dorsey to live up to his billing for the run defense to improve.

The Chargers have typically started slow under Norv Turner (fourth season) so it would be no surprise to see Kansas City ride off with a victory. But I’m seeing the Mathews factor as being big enough for San Diego to squeak out a close victory.

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