Breaking down the game

The Dolphins have won their last five games against San Diego, but this is a totally different Chargers team they will face. Led by LaDainian Tomlinson, the Chargers have won five consecutive games as they make a push for a playoff berth. As Coach Nick Saban has said repeatedly this week, this is an opportunity for the Dolphins to see how they measure up against a quality opponent.

The Dolphins are on a two-game winning streak of their own, but the victories have come against Oakland and Buffalo, two teams with 4-8 records. So this is a major step up in competition.

At least the Dolphins will have Zach Thomas back for this game, and that should help in trying to contain Tomlinson, arguably the best running back -- if not the best player -- in the league.

The bad news is that for the second consecutive game the Dolphins will be without nose tackle Keith Traylor, who underwent minor knee surgery on Tuesday.

His absence will put the pressure on Jeff Zgonina and Manuel Wright to do the job in the middle of the defensive line.

One way or another, Tomlinson figures to get his share of yards; what the Dolphins can't have is Tomlinson going off for 150 or more.

The Dolphins want to make Drew Brees beat them, pure and simple.

Brees is having another good year, but he's also capable of a clunker, which is what he did two weeks ago at Washington.

The key for the Dolphins is to put pressure on Brees, and that's an attainable goal considering that San Diego's offensive line isn't great to begin with and could be without starting left tackle Roman Oben.

When Brees throws, the guy to watch is Antonio Gates, the former college basketball star who has become the best tight end in the NFL.

The Dolphins have had their problems with good tight ends this year, and will need to do a better job against Gates.

On the other side of the ball, this is one game where the Dolphins figure to need a lot of production from the passing game.

That's because the Chargers are very difficult run on; in fact, they lead the league in rushing defense.

So yards could be tough to come by for Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams, although the Dolphins still need to try to establish something on the ground.

On the other hand, the Chargers pass defense is mediocre at best, this despite the fact that the team's four cornerbacks -- including former Dolphin Jamar Fletcher -- were either first- or second-round picks.

So Chris Chambers and Co. will get open against this group, and the key will be giving Gus Frerotte protection.

The Chargers, who play a 3-4, get most of their pressure from outside linebackers Shaun Phillips and Shawne Merriman, a leading candidate for NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year.

Merriman has tremendous speed around the corner and the Dolphins could have their hands full against him, particularly because Vernon Carey and Damion McIntosh both have problems against speed rushers.

Look, this is a really tough matchup for the Dolphins, which is why they're also two-touchdown underdogs in this one. Realistically, it will take a tremendous effort for them to pull out a victory and maybe the ticket to success is getting some big plays in the return game against a San Diego special teams unit that hasn't been that good.

If the Dolphins somehow can pull it off, it will be their biggest victory of the season.


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