WR Chris Chambers (Jeff Gross/Getty)
The Chargers, considered one of the AFC's elite teams, head to Miami Sunday for a ho-hum game against the Dolphins, one of the AFC's non-elite teams. Not so fast.
That was the mantra from the Chargers, taking note of the different vibe generating from South Florida.
That happens when the Dolphins (1-2) did something the Chargers (2-2) haven't done in their last two playoff appearances -- beat the New England Patriots.
That got the Chargers -- and the rest of the NFL's -- attention.
"Absolutely," running back LaDainian Tomlinson said. "Because I really throw out the first two games and don't really count them -- new coaching staff, it always takes time to get used to a new coaching staff.
"I judge them on their last game they had, which was the Patriots. And they had a heck of a showing and it's going to be a heck of a challenge for us."
The Chargers are back at .500 after surviving an up-and-down outing last Sunday in Oakland. They could be better, they could be worse.
"No harm, no foul -- that is kind of the way I think of it," Tomlinson said. "At 2-2 and one game out of first place in our division, it wasn't the greatest (start) but it certainly wasn't the worst."
Especially compared to 2007.
"I thought we've done a lot of good things," quarterback Philip Rivers said. "We are 2-2 and if you go off last year, we are a game better.
"But it's not consolation to how close we are to being unblemished.
"I think we battled back and shown some grit and fight to get back to .500 and we know what this month of October is going to bring and we are ready for it."
This is the first of three daunting trips. The team goes to Miami, Buffalo and then London.
But that's down the, well, road. What is right in front of the Chargers -- an improved Dolphins team playing confident and at home -- is the main focus.
"They are really a sound football team," coach Norv Turner said. "They got veteran players; they don't get out of position much. They are playing good defense and they created some offense against New England."
Ah yes, New England -- the biggest Dolphins win since they won last year to potentially avoid a 0-16 season.
"They got everyone's attention," Turner said. "Obviously, it is a dramatic change. It's an offense that was spread out and they great success and got the ball in the hands of real skilled player."
The Chargers have plenty of those. They also have the feet back under them after starting 0-2 and evening their books.
But they can't go to sleep on the revved Dolphins.
"They are coming off a bye week and I think they still have some momentum coming off New England," Rivers said. "Like it is every week in this league, it's a challenge to go on the road and win."
SERIES HISTORY: 26th meeting. Dolphins lead series, 13-12, and the Dolphins have won six straight. The Chargers haven't won a game in South Florida in more than 27 years -- the epic overtime game that is considered among the greatest games in NFL history. Their last win in the series came in the 1994 Divisional Playoffs, the Chargers' lone Super Bowl season.
--RB LaDainian Tomlinson is happy that Miami RB Ricky Williams is back in action. "It is good to see him back because he is a heck of a football player and I've always enjoyed watching him back to when he was at Texas," he said. Williams is the Dolphins' second-leading rusher.
--ILB Stephen Cooper went through his first practice as his four-game suspension ended. "I feel like I picked it up pretty quick," he said. "Everybody was bagging on me for having fresh legs, but what are you going to do."
--C Nick Hardwick is preparing for his second start after undergoing offseason foot surgery. "It's nice to get back out there practicing, to tighten up the technique some," he said.
--WR Chris Chambers was a popular player when he left Miami last season after being acquired by the Chargers in a trade. "I may have to turn off my phone on Saturday," Chambers said. "I will catch up with all those people in the offseason."
--Coach Norv Turner didn't have much to say about the circus up in Oakland. Turner coached for Raiders owner Al Davis for two years. "It really is a non-issue for us here," he said.
--Turner was the Dolphins' offensive coordinator form 2002-03.
-- Current Dolphins offensive coordinator Dan Henning was the Chargers' head coach from 1989-91, going 16-32.
--Chargers T L.J. Shelton played for the Dolphins from 2006-07, starting all 32 games.
--Miami WR Greg Camarillo spent the 2005-06 seasons in San Diego on the practice squad and the regular roster. It was Camarillo's catch last year that gave the Dolphins their lone win.
--In the next four weeks, the Chargers will travel 15,771 air miles, more than 11 of the NFL's 32 teams will travel for a full season. They head to Miami, Buffalo and London.
BY THE NUMBERS: 54 -- Rushing yards needed by LaDainian Tomlinson to reach 11,000 in his career.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "I'm feeling good." -- RB LaDainian Tomlinson, on more proof that his injured right big toe is a thing of the past.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
Look for ILB Stephen Cooper to get the start over veteran Derek Smith. The Chargers are counting on Cooper to give their up-and-down run defense a boost with his fresh legs and solid play. Smith was decent while filling in for Cooper, but the Chargers are expecting the play from that position to improve dramatically.
--ILB Tim Dobbins continues to make strides and could be replacing Matt Wilhelm in the starting lineup. Regardless, Dobbins will see plenty of action against the Dolphins.
--RB Darren Sproles has been a constant with his production off returns and his play was acknowledged when the was named the AFC Special Teams Player of the Month.
--OLB Marques Harris would be in line to start for Jyles Tucker if he can't go with a hamstring injury. Harris has a great first step; he had a sack last week in Oakland and forced a fumble that helped the Chargers' second-half rally.
--DT Jamal Williams didn't practice Wednesday but that is not a cause for concern. He is moving as well as he has all year and is coming off a solid game. He had six tackles, but more importantly, was a force in the middle even when not bringing down the ball-carrier.
GAME PLAN: The Chargers need to establish the run and take some of the steam out of an aggressive Dolphins defense. Keep that defense on the field as much as possible in what promises to be a humid day with temperatures in the mid-80s. If they can do that, they will be susceptible to the big play downfield if tiring out. But this won't be easy with the Dolphins showing a No. 10 ranking against the run. But they haven't faced a back like LaDainian Tomlinson, either, and the Chargers' All-Pro RB is as healthy as he has been all year.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH
Chargers pass protection vs. a Dolphins pass rush that is led by WLB Joey Porter.
No one around the Chargers could remember the last time Philip Rivers took such a beating as he did in Oakland. The Chargers have to shore that up, but it won't be a snap against an active Dolphins defense that has a 3-4 alignment and Porter screaming off the edge. Porter already has four sacks in three games, which ties him for second in the AFC. LT Marcus McNeill need to be on his game, but the Chargers would be wise to give him some help over there by parking TE Brandon Manumaleuna over there and keeping a fullback in the backfield to lend a hand.
The Chargers run defense against a Dolphins running game, which is a two-headed monster with Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams.
The Chargers usually hang their defensive hat on their run defense, but so far it has yet to dominate on a consistent basis -- thus its No. 22 ranking. But that run unit gets a lift with the return of Stephen Cooper, their leading tackler last year. Brown is shifty and proved in the last game he can throw the ball as well. Williams is the team's second-leading rusher and remains a dangerous threat. The Chargers have to be ready for the Dolphins spreading out their offense, as well as operating a strong running game out of their base defense. The Dolphins at No. 6 in rushing and will try to attack that part of the Chargers defense. Not only to gain yards, but to possibly shorten the game and keep the Chargers offense off the field.
INJURY IMPACT: OLB Jyles Tucker (hamstring) didn't work Wednesday and could be out this weekend. If he can't go, Marques Harris -- a third-stringer before the season -- would replace him. ... TE Antonio Gates (hip) didn't practice but should go on Sunday. ... RG Mike Goff (knee) didn't work and may not go until Friday. This is a tough guy and the expectation is he will play. ... DT Jamal Williams (knee) didn't practice but he will play Sunday. ... FB Mike Tolbert (ankle) didn't practice and could be a game-time decision. If he can't go, rookie Jacob Hester could get his first NFL start.