THE CRYSTAL BALL

The Dolphins of early in the season returned last week against Baltimore, but are they back for good or was last Sunday's game just a one-shot reprieve? The answer to that question will determine whether the Dolphins can beat the San Diego Chargers on Sunday, and here's how we think the game is going to unfold.

In San Diego, the Dolphins face an almost mirror image of themselves.

Both teams have stud running backs, but neither Ricky Williams nor LaDainian Tomlinson figure to rack up huge numbers against the NFL's second- and third-ranked rushing defenses.

If you then make it a Drew Brees-vs.-Ray Lucas matchup, the Chargers would seem to have the edge.

But there are couple of things that need to be kept in mind.

First, the Dolphins' pass defense is much better than that of the Chargers, which will make Lucas' job much easier than what Brees will face.

The Dolphins are particularly good on defense at home, and that's something else that comes into play.

Finally, the Chargers offensive line is banged up, particularly at tackle, which means it could be another big day for Jason Taylor, Adewale Ogunleye and Co.

The Dolphins also have an edge when it comes to special teams, because Olindo Mare can make the long field goal, whereas the Chargers use two field goal kickers — accurate Steve Christie and strong-legged but inconsistent Wade Richey for the long kicks.

There really doesn't figure to be a ton of scoring in this game because the Chargers are going to make the Dolphins go on long drives with their bend-but-don't-break defense, and it remains questionable whether Lucas can put together a lot of solid plays in a row.

He has played progressively better each week, so there's reason to think he can get the Dolphins in the end zone once or twice, but it won't be easy.

On the flip side, the Chargers simply are not an explosive team on offense, partly because of Marty Schottenheimer's play-it-close-to-the-vest philosophy.

And with the way the Dolphins play defense at home, San Diego won't be scoring many points.

The last time the Chargers were at Pro Player Stadium, the Dolphins won 12-9 in a game that featured nothing but field goals.

Don't be overly shocked to see a similar kind of game. We're thinking it's going to be low-scoring again, with the Dolphins have the edge because of Mare and because of the home-field advantage.

Schottenheimer is only 1-8 in his career in Miami, and he's in for another disappointing visit.

The call: Dolphins 16, Chargers 13.


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