The Chargers are off to Miami and hopefully not toward irrelevancy.
OK, two-game losing streaks can rattle any team’s foundation.
But the Chargers at 5-1 look different than the Chargers at 5-3 and it’s more than the numbers changing.
What’s clear is the NFL calendar is shifting, and with it, here comes any season’s defining moments.
Sunday’s game against the Dolphins christens the challenging November and December stretch. And from your tiptoes, can you really see the playoffs from here?
Starting Sunday, contests embrace a significance not seen in September when the season was fresh. Back when injuries, and losses, were for other teams.
Those Chargers’ warm-and-fuzzies from October’s victories?
They don’t mean squat unless finishing the deal as the year finishes as well. It’s when the opponents turn good, the weather goes bad and early season optimism can flicker.
Which gets us back to the Chargers and why again for the four-alarm clang against the mediocre Dolphins?
The Chargers reach the season’s midway point teetering in opposite directions. Their fork in the highway is obvious, if not which way they’ll lean.
That’s why Sunday’s contest is so critical, for the present and future.
There’s not much wiggle room with the Chargers’ second-half chances if the first half finishes against the Dolphins minus a win.
We didn’t forget there’s a balm-like bye after Miami for the Chargers’ ailing masses to heal.
But then it’s roadies at Baltimore, San Francisco and Kansas City. Plus, the Patriots, Raiders and Rams visit.
Don’t snicker at the Rams as they brag, like the Chargers, about beating the Seahawks.
But the Miami sound machine is really the Chargers’ wake-up call. Smack snooze now, when considering the schedule later, and a sizzling start melts like the Wicked Witch.
Miami (4-3) is far from San Diego, but a greater distance from intimidating. It’s won two straight, but Miami’s offense was outscored by its defense last week and that it played muddling Jacksonville may explain that.
This week is about being macho. The Chargers need to prove they’re not the 98-pound weakling on South Beach.
That’s the trouble of late: rivals flex and the Chargers flinch.
In the last three games, the Broncos, Chiefs and Raiders all excelled in running the ball. That the Chargers survived to win in Oakland remains a head-scratcher.
What’s easy to decipher is the depleted Chargers’ secondary is shoddy — at best. With injuries to cornerbacks Brandon Flowers and Jason Verrett, the back end is the business end for any appreciative quarterback.
But a good run defense can mask that, and, yes, Happy Halloween.
If the Chargers had a stout defensive front — paging linebacker Donald Butler, please — it could shine on the running downs and that translates into helping the pass defense. Third-and-longs are the norm instead of third-and-shorts and it’s now-or-never for the Chargers.
Can the Chargers’ run defense rebound to force Miami’s Ryan Tannehill into passing situations?
Can the wobbly Chargers running game, with Braden Oliver, be more potent than a watered-down Sun Life Stadium margarita?
Those are two crucial questions and both can be answered with the strength of Chargers muscle.
Win in Miami for the first time in 33 years and the Chargers’ promising season finds another gear.
Lose to the Dolphins and suddenly it becomes a flipper.
Contact Jay Paris at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter at jparis_sports. He talks Chargers football on 1360 AM on Monday mornings at 8.