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NFL Preview - San Diego (4-5) at Miami (4-5)
By Michael Rushton, Contributing NFL Editor
(SportsNetwork.com) - The Miami Dolphins' fast start to the season has become a distant memory, lost in a current 1-5 slump that has featured struggles on the field and turmoil in the locker room.
The San Diego Chargers are in the midst of their own struggles that has them chasing a playoff spot and they'll try to get right this Sunday with their first victory in Miami in nearly 32 years.
Under second-year head coach Joe Philbin, the Dolphins raced out to a 3-0 start for the first time since the 2002 season, but that quickly gave way to a four-game losing streak.
Miami snapped that slide with a 22-20 overtime victory over the Cincinnati Bengals on Oct. 31, but reports began to surface days before that game that tackle Jonathan Martin had left the team due to emotional issues following a prank at the team's lunch room earlier in the week.
Then, on Nov. 4, guard Richie Incognito was suspended by the club for his alleged role in bullying Martin, putting a lot of negative focus on the Dolphins ahead of their Monday night matchup with winless Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
The Buccaneers were winless no more after besting the Dolphins 22-19.
Miami did rally from a 15-point deficit with 19 straight points, but Tampa Bay scored the winning touchdown early in the fourth as its defense stood up from there.
"(The Buccaneers) did a great job but we had plenty of opportunities and they played better in the fourth quarter and deserved to win," said Dolphins coach Joe Philbin. "They played better than us out the gate and the film will say that when we watch the tape. They had better tempo, they controlled the line of scrimmage better and you don't want to go on the road and dig yourself into a 15-0 hole, which is what we did."
Ryan Tannehill connected on 27-of-42 passes for 229 yards with two touchdown throws, while second-year wide receiver Rishard Matthews broke out with 11 receptions for 120 yards and two scores.
Miami, though, ended the game with a mere two yards rushing and allowed 140 on the ground.
"It's definitely tough because we want to be a balanced team," said Tannehill. "We want to be a team that can establish the run game and then use it to set up play-action and things like that, so it's something that we'll definitely try to get back on track."
The Dolphins will look to do so against a Chargers team they have bested at home in six straight meetings, including playoffs. San Diego has not picked up a win in Miami since Jan. 2, 1982 in a divisional playoff matchup at the Orange Bowl.
The Chargers have won the last two meetings overall, including 26-16 in 2011, and the all-time series is even at 14-14.
San Diego comes in with an identical 4-5 record, having lost two straight following a bye. After an overtime loss two weekends ago in Washington, the Chargers were unable to capitalize early and dropped a 28-20 decision to the Denver Broncos this past Sunday.
The Chargers trailed 28-6 early in the third quarter before Philip Rivers threw a seven-yard touchdown pass to running back Danny Woodhead in the third frame and Ryan Mathews scored on the ground from a yard out early in the fourth.
However, settling for two field goals in the first half ended up being the difference.
"Offensively early on there we weren't able to get touchdowns," said Bolts head coach Mike McCoy. "We had the three field goal attempts there. Against a good team like this you have to finish drives with touchdowns in the red area. That's something we did not do a good job of early in the game."
Rivers threw for 218 yards while completing 19-of-29 pass attempts, getting sacked four times. Mathews ended with 59 yards rushing and Ronnie Brown, the second-overall pick of the 2005 draft by Miami, added 36 yards on nine carries.
San Diego lost despite holding the ball for more than 38 minutes compared to Denver's time of possession of 21 minutes and 57 seconds.
"We kept battling and made it a one-score game and had a chance," said Rivers. "Our defense gave us enough opportunities."
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
Probably a popular waiver claim in fantasy football this week, Matthews had a coming out party on Monday night with his game. It was unexpected to say the least, given his previous career highs in a game were four catches and 42 yards.
However, the 24-year-old became the first player in club history to have 11 or more catches and two touchdowns in a single game.
Lost in the mix behind Mike Wallace and Brian Hartline, who have combined for 83 catches and over 1,000 yards this season, Matthews has stepped into the inside role left vacated due to Brandon Gibson's season-ending knee injury.
"I have to be honest with you, Matthews has exceeded my expectations at that position," Miami offensive coordinator Mike Sherman said. "I see him more as an outside receiver than an inside receiver. The inside guys have to be nifty and he's a little more niftier than I gave him credit for."
Sherman will now be tasked with getting Miami's 25th-ranked ground game going after the horrid performance versus Tampa Bay. A return home could help as running back Lamar Miller, who had two yards on seven carries Monday night, had a career-high 105 yards rushing in the win over visiting Cincinnati and is averaging 5.6 yards per carry at home this season.
Tannehill has also done well at home this season, completing six touchdown passes to three interceptions, but will be behind a shorthanded offensive line.
In addition to missing Martin and Incognito, backup tackle Will Yeatman reportedly suffered a torn ACL in practice on Wednesday that would end his season.
That isn't good news for Tannehill, who has been sacked 37 times this season.
Miami's secondary did grab its 12th interception of the season on Monday after having just 10 all of last year. No. 12 came from safety Jimmy Wilson, his second of the season.
Defensive end Cameron Wake had three sacks versus the Bengals before coming up empty against the Bucs, while linebacker and leading tackler Dannell Ellerbe is coming off a solid game in which he had 11 tackles and a sack.
Miami will need to knock Rivers out of rhythm given his success this season. He has completed 71.6 percent of his passes with 18 touchdown throws to seven picks for an excellent 105.9 passer rating.
Rivers' average of 328 passing yards per game on the road this year is second- best behind only Peyton Manning and he has three games this season in which he completed at least 20 passes and 80 percent of his attempts. That matches Brett Favre and Drew Brees for a single-season high.
Rivers' top weapons are Woodhead, who has caught a club-high 53 passes with four touchdowns out of the backfield while also running for 220 yards and a score, and tight end Antonio Gates.
Gates caught four of eight targets last Sunday for 62 yards and is 67 yards away from 9,000 in his career. He is set to play in his 157th career game and has a chance to pass Dallas' Jason Witten (160 games) for the quickest to 9,000 yards.
Gates is also just six receptions shy of becoming the third-fastest to 700 career catches.
Rookie linebacker Tourek Williams notched his first career sack and also forced a fumble. He could see increased playing time with Larry English having gone on injured reserve due to a biceps injury suffered versus Denver.
Other young contributors on San Diego's 29th-ranked defense include linebackers Donald Butler and Manti Te'o as well as cornerback Derek Cox and defensive end Corey Liuget.
The Dolphins and Chargers are two of five teams in the AFC that sit at 4-5 and just a game back of the 5-4 New York Jets for a playoff spot. Needless to say, the loser this weekend can probably kiss its playoff chances goodbye.
Three of Miami's five losses have come by three points or less, but things won't get easier this Sunday given the current state of the run game and offensive line.
San Diego, meanwhile, has allowed 58 points in back-to-back losses after yielding just 15 in two previous wins. A meeting with the Dolphins should get them closer to that form than the current one.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Chargers 24, Dolphins 17
11/14 15:43:32 ET
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