Chargers' opener vs. Dolphins could be key to 11-win season or impending disaster

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The domination was so complete that, down in Miami, they’ve assigned it a proper name:

“The Brandon Staley Plan.”

That’s what a south Florida reporter referenced this week when asking Dolphins head coach Mike McDaniel how much he has thought about his team’s 23-17 loss to the Chargers in mid-December at SoFi Stadium.

“The Brandon Staley Plan,” McDaniel repeated, grinning and shaking his head. “It definitely comes up over the course of the offseason, at least 1/17th of the time. You know, divvied up amongst the other games.”

This apparently was McDaniel’s way of dismissing any suggestion that he’s obsessed with seeking revenge Sunday when the two teams open the 2023 season against one another, again at SoFi Stadium.

The Chargers will be looking for a performance just as tilted as that Week 14 showing, when they strong-armed time of possession and harassed Tua Tagovailoa into a 10-of-28 effort.

This game — pitting evenly matched teams both given an over/under win total of 9.5 by FanDuel — could set the foundation for a successful season for the winner. And for the loser? It could be an opportunity for a Week 2 rebound.

Either way, the Chargers face a formidable challenge to top that 9.5 number, which might be a necessity to reach the playoffs in a deep AFC.

Examining the possibilities a bit deeper, a breakdown of the team’s schedule in the context of the over/under totals set by FanDuel and paths to both sides of the wager:

Getting started

Sept. 10 MIAMI (over/under total: 9.5), Sept. 17 at Tennessee (7.5), Sept. 24 at Minnesota (8.5), Oct. 1 LAS VEGAS (6.5):

Defeating the Dolphins would set up the Chargers for a potentially strong opening month. The three-game stretch that follows the opener — although it includes two road games — features opponents not projected to have winning seasons.

The Chargers have only one other such string of three games all season, in December, making this early schedule a spot to make a push.

In his first two seasons, Staley’s teams opened 4-1 and 4-2. Another solid start seems abundantly reasonable. The Chargers are three-point favorites against Miami and, if they play well Sunday and beyond, could be favored in all four of these games.

Of course, it starts with the Dolphins and backing up that 2022 showing, one that launched the Chargers to a four-game win streak and a postseason berth.

“That Miami game was sort of that power source for us, that refocus, that energy point where we put together a master plan,” Staley said. “We needed it and when we needed it, we had it.”


Approaching midseason

Oct. 8 OFF WEEK, Oct. 16 DALLAS (9.5), Oct. 22 at Kansas City (11.5), Oct. 29 CHICAGO (7.5), Nov. 6 at New York Jets (9.5), Nov. 12 DETROIT (9.5):

The NFL did the Chargers no favors by giving them the earliest possible off week, setting up a potentially grueling 13-game finishing stretch. Cleveland, Seattle and Tampa Bay also don’t play Week 5.

Upon their return, the Chargers have what might be their toughest back-to-back games of the season when they host the Cowboys before facing the Chiefs at Arrowhead Stadium.

Dallas is once again considered a playoff contender and could be a Super Bowl participant in a weakened NFC. Kansas City has won the AFC West each of the last seven seasons.

This block also includes three prime-time games in the span of four weeks, a run that ends against Aaron Rodgers in MetLife Stadium on a Monday night sure to be hyped to the nth degree.


Second half begins

Nov. 19 at Green Bay (7.5), Nov. 26 BALTIMORE (10.5), Dec. 3 at New England (7.5), Dec. 10 DENVER (8.5), Dec. 14 at Las Vegas (6.5):

This segment opens with a visit to historic Lambeau Field, where the Packers could be waiting as one of the NFL’s best stories, the team flourishing under new quarterback Jordan Love.

Then again, the town could be suffering from a throbbing Rodgers hangover, hangovers something of a Monday morning tradition in Green Bay.

The Chargers then return home to play the Ravens in another prime-time matchup.

Next, the Chargers have their second three-game set against teams not forecast to have winning seasons. Just as with the earlier stretch, two of the three are on the road.

However, also as with the earlier stretch, this could be a chance for the Chargers to make a move.


Down the stretch

Dec. 23 BUFFALO (10.5), Dec. 31 at Denver (8.5), Jan. 6 or 7 KANSAS CITY (11.5):

Now, comes the shortest block of games and, quite possibly, the most significant and difficult, especially with all the playoff implications that figure to be swirling.

The Chargers do have the Bills and Chiefs at home, but those are teams that almost certainly will be in the middle of the postseason hunt, unless Kansas City has locked up the AFC West by the Week 18 kickoffs.

Justin Herbert against Josh Allen and then Patrick Mahomes would be exactly what the NFL wants to optimize its late-season television ratings.

In between Buffalo and Kansas City, the Chargers travel to face the Broncos, which has not been a profitable experience for this franchise of late. Charger teams are 1-9 against Denver on the road since Jan. 12, 2014.

OPTIMISTIC PROJECTION: 2-1 for 11-6 finish. PESSIMISTIC: 1-2 for 7-10 finish.

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