Mired in scandal, Dolphins face Chargers

The stands will make a statement Sunday regarding the state of
the Miami Dolphins.

A harassment case and a succession of dismal defeats have sent
the Dolphins reeling, and they’ll play at home for the first time
since the scandal broke when they face the San Diego Chargers.

Fans are expected to stay away in large numbers. The Dolphins’
stadium has been half-empty several times already this season, and
now the loyalty of even the most ardent supporters is being
tested.

Miami has lost five of the past six games, including a dreadful
defeat Monday at previously winless Tampa Bay. The harassment case
has prompted an NFL investigation, raised questions about the
team’s locker room culture, and left the future of coach Joe
Philbin and general manager Jeff Ireland in doubt.

”It has been an ugly, ugly two weeks for the Miami Dolphins,”
retired linebacker Kim Bokamper told the Dolphins Touchdown Club.
”It has been chaos. It seems like a faucet dripping. Every day
another drop drips.”

Quarterback Ryan Tannehill’s message to fans: ”Hang in
there.”

”We’re going to battle through this thing,” he said. ”We’re
going to get this situation sorted out in the locker room. Whatever
needs to take place, whatever decisions need to be made, that’s
what we’re going to do. On the field we’re just going to keep
pressing forward and continue to fight and get better. We’re in a
tough spot right now, but at the end of the day we’re still in the
playoff hunt.”

Here are five keys to look for in the game, even if a lot of
folks in Miami don’t watch:

PLAYOFF PICTURE: The Dolphins (4-5) have looked nothing like
postseason contenders lately, but they began the week tied with the
Chargers and three other teams for seventh place in the race for
the six AFC playoff spots.

San Diego’s a staggering five games behind unbeaten Kansas City
in the AFC West, and Miami trails AFC East leader New England by
three games, but both still have a wild-card shot.

”There were a lot of teams in a very similar position that we
are in right now,” Philbin said. ”November and December decide a
lot. The teams that have the great character, the great chemistry,
find a way to fight through the obstacles and adversity, and
perform at a high level this time of the year. That’s what we have
to do.”

If Miami and San Diego finish with the same record, the game
could serve as the tiebreaker for a playoff berth, which makes it
even more important.

”We can’t worry about seven weeks down the road from now,”
Chargers coach Mike McCoy said. ”That will all work itself out.
You have to win this one.”

CAN EITHER TEAM BLOCK?: Both offensive lines are a mess. The
Chargers have played 16 combinations in their front five, while the
Dolphins are without two starters because of the harassment
scandal.

Tackle Jonathan Martin left the team nearly three weeks ago, and
following his allegations of harassment by teammates, guard Richie
Incognito was suspended. Miami then ran for a franchise-record low
of 2 yards against the Buccaneers, averaging 5 inches per
carry.

”If we blocked them well enough, we could probably get 6 or
maybe 7 inches,” offensive coordinator Mike Sherman said.

SLIDING RIVERS: Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers slid when he
had more room to run and came up short of a first down in the first
quarter of last week’s loss against Denver, and two plays later San
Diego settled for a field goal.

Some saw the slide as a symbol for a season gone awry with
mistakes. Rivers said he would do the same thing again, even though
he has slid just short of a first down when running several times
this year.

”It being second down, I wasn’t paying too much attention to
the chains,” Rivers said. ”It’s run as far as you can and get
down. After watching it, sure I could have dove or maybe ran two
more steps, but I think I would do that 10 out of 10 times on
second-and-6 early in the game. It’s not so much I’m worried about
being hit, but you obviously have to be smart.”

WHITHER WALLACE?: The Dolphins gave newcomer Mike Wallace a $60
million, five-year contract this year because they expected him to
stretch the defense and provide big plays long missing from Miami’s
offense.

That hasn’t happened. Wallace has one touchdown and is averaging
a career-low 12.4 yards per catch with nine drops, while Miami
ranks third worst in the league in yards.

”We need more explosive plays on our offense,” Philbin said.
”Certainly I wouldn’t argue that.”

Wallace and the Dolphins will face a Chargers defense allowing
opponents to complete 68 percent of their passes for an average of
8.6 yards per attempt, both worst in the NFL.

PLAYOFF MEMORIES: On Jan. 2, 1982, the Chargers blew a 24-point
lead, rallied in the final minute of regulation and beat the
Dolphins 41-38 in overtime. San Diego’s Dan Fouts threw for 433
yards, Don Strock threw for 403, and the game was voted the NFL’s
Game of the `80s by the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

That’s the last time the Chargers won in Miami, where they have
since lost six games in a row.

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