NFL Preview - San Diego (5-3) at Miami (4-3) (ET)
(SportsNetwork.com) - There's a subtle change that occurs once a team expects to be above .500 in the NFL. No longer are wins just enough. Instead, even 14- point wins are parsed for bad moments.
That could now be the case for the Miami Dolphins, who improved to 4-3 with a 27-13 defeat of in-state rival Jacksonville, but have spent at least some of the subsequent week - while preparing for a visit from cross-country foe San Diego - explaining why the toppling of the Jaguars wasn't exactly a highlight reel.
The Dolphins scored twice on interception returns against Jacksonville, a happy defensive occurrence that bailed out a largely impotent offensive unit that went three-and-out on its first three series, had just three first downs in the first 30 minutes and scored 13 points against a team with one prior victory that had already surrendered 33 or more points four times.
Miami has won two straight, but is nonetheless just 25th in the league in passing with a weekly average of 231.3 yards - a number that's got wide receiver Mike Wallace, in the second year of a lucrative deal he signed when exiting Pittsburgh as a free agent, irritated.
He caught two passes for 59 yards against the Jaguars and failed to score for the first time since Week 4.
"It's frustrating. It has got to change," he said. "We're not going to get nowhere like that."
Quarterback Ryan Tannehill, who completed 16-of-29 passes for 196 yards, a touchdown and an interception, agreed. He, by the way, has been sacked seven times in two games and has been curiously ineffective at home this season, completing barely 55 percent of his throws for 627 yards, five TDs and three interceptions in three games.
"It has to be better," he said. "We have to get this corrected."
Still, Miami has won the past seven matchups in the series that have occurred in South Florida, dating back to a classic divisional playoff game in 1982. Extending that streak, given Tannehill's recent difficulties, could be a product of a ground game that's churning out 138 yards per week to rank sixth in the league. The Chargers have been gashed for 293 rush yards in losing two straight.
"You have to be able to understand that it's not all bad when you lose and it's not all good when you win," San Diego linebacker Dwight Freeney said. "It's about the team that is standing at the end. We are going to play a Dolphins team that does a lot of things."
To be fair, the Chargers have shown signs of doing a lot of things, too.
San Diego lost in Week 1, but then reeled off five straight victories before skidding back to 5-3 with consecutive losses to Kansas City and Denver.
Quarterback Philip Rivers averaged better than 300 yards and had 14 touchdowns to a single interception in the five-game skein, but has been picked off twice while the average has dipped to 228.5 yards against the Chiefs and Broncos.
In two starts at Miami, his completion percentage is eight points lower than his career average.
The Dolphins, too, are best in the league at limiting yards per pass attempt - 10.2.
"This is a 16-game season, it's a 16-round fight and we've won five and lost three," Rivers said. "It's one big game is the way I see it. We've had a couple rounds where we've got knocked around a little bit. We have to regroup and try to go get round number nine at Miami."
San Diego's defense could use the same rallying cry.
The Chargers have allowed 11 more points and 105 more yards, on average, across the last three games than they had in their initial five. And they'll enter the game with the Dolphins perhaps without the services of cornerback Jason Verrett and linebacker Jahleel Addae, both of whom are questionable.
Addae suffered a concussion after a pair of hits last week, the second of which saw him convulsing after helmet-to-helmet contact.
"It hasn't been our best ball. I know we are kind of banged up," Freeney said. "But this is the NFL and the other team doesn't care. So we have to find a way to somehow put our best product out there."
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
Lock Up the Gates
Canton-bound tight end Antonio Gates is having another spectacular season for the Chargers - 32 catches, 417 yards and nine touchdowns - so bottling him up will be a task for Miami.
His shadow for the day could be safety Rashad Jones, though it wouldn't be shocking to see the Dolphins employ a cadre of Gates-related blankets including linebackers Kelvin Sheppard and Koa Misi, too.
Beating the Replacements
For a funk-enduring quarterback like Tannehill, the matchup with the Chargers is well-timed. San Diego could be without a pair of starting cornerbacks in the aforementioned Verrett and Brandon Flowers, who's sustained a concussion.
Whether it's them or someone else, a major challenge will be making sure this isn't the week that the Tannehill-Wallace connection finds its sea legs.
For all the issues each team has faced, they've both got a lot of weapons, too, and it's no accident that they're a combined 9-6 through 15 games.
Expect both Rivers and Tannehill to return to something approaching form, and anticipate the game to come down to a late-stage situation in which one guy makes a decisive play. The guess here is that it's Rivers and that the Chargers will escape on the road.
Sports Network predicted outcome: Chargers 24, Dolphins 20