The AFC playoff picture is so murky, I half-expect Swamp Thing to be moseying around in it.
The Chargers, Jets, Dolphins, Ravens, Browns, Titans, Raiders and Steelers are all within 2 games of each other for the 6th seed with seven games to play. So, since head-to-head record is the first tiebreaker, this weekend's game at Sun Life Stadium in Miami is as big a meeting of 4-5 teams as you're going to find.
The Bolts and Fins have taken different routes to mediocrity. Miami started 3-0, but have dropped five out of six. San Diego has ping-ponged wins and losses, never being more than a game over or under .500 all season.
A week ago the Chargers arguably outplayed the Broncos for most of their 28-20 loss while the Dolphins lost to the previously winless Buccaneers. That's the biggest reason why the Dolphins opened as 2.5-point favorites, but the money moved the Chargers to a 1.5-point fave (by the way, moving a spread a full four points in the favor of the perceived underdog is in no way a common thing).
Let's take a look at three players who will have an impact Sunday in South Florida:
Thomas Keiser, OLB:
The Chargers have already lost three outside linebackers to injury (Melvin Ingram in training camp, Dwight Freeney and Larry English) and might not have Jarret Johnson again on Sunday. So it's looking like Keiser and Tourek Williams could both make their second career NFL starts at Sun Life. Against Denver it was Williams who made the momentum-changing play, sacking Peyton Manning and forcing a fumble to set up San Diego's first touchdown. However, Keiser is the more experienced of the two, having played in 16 games with 6.5 sacks. Keiser had a pair of sacks his last trip to Florida, dropping Chad Henne twice in Jacksonville. Miami's offense line is in utter chaos, and it wasn't any good before the whole Martin-Incognito controversy erupted. QB Ryan Tannehill has been sacked at least twice in every game this year, and has gone down 37 times total (in just nine games). Baltimore and New England got him six times each. Keiser needs to spend a lot of time in the Miami backfield, put Tannehill on the ground, and put the ball back in the hands of the Chargers offense.
Vincent Brown, WR:
Aside from being gouged by Drew Brees in New Orleans (and really, who DOESN'T get gouged by Drew Brees these days) the Dolphins defense has not given up an avalanche of points. In fact, they've been pretty good. Miami is second in the NFL with 12 interceptions and have a pretty good pass rush, with 13 different players recording a sack. They know about Antonio Gates and Eddie Royal, and Keenan Allen has turned enough heads to deserve attention. But, Brown is still flying under the radar. He's shown tremendous potential, and has certainly earned the trust of Philip Rivers, but Brown's big games have come sporadically. Against a good, multi-faceted defense, the Aztec 4 Life will have to come up large again and force Miami to deal with him. It'll help free up the rest of the pass catchers, and more importantly, help the Chargers run the ball effectively.
Mike Scifres, P:
It's been lost in the shuffle the last couple of weeks, but Scifres has been punting the ball extremely well, even by his standards. Remember in Washington when he stuck a pair of punts at the one yard line (the only good thing about the one from that game)? Last week he banged a 51-yarder with crazy hang time to help pin the Broncos deep in their own territory and neutralize Trindon Holliday. Sunday's game figures to be a low-scoring affair, and that means field position is at a premium. Scifres gives the Chargers a decided advantage in that area, which might make the difference the end.
Miami is having all kinds of issues off the field. The Bolts are having all kinds of issues in the Red Zone. The latter is a whole lot easier to fix. The Chargers won't cure all their goal line ills in one game, but they will do enough to get back on the right track, and back to .500, against a Miami team that just does not have enough offensive punch to hang with the Bolts.
Final score: Chargers 20, Dolphins 17