MIAMI (AP) — There was a time when the Miami Dolphins made Tom Brady look like a sixth-round draft pick.
That was in the early 2000s, when the Dolphins had Jason Taylor, Zach Thomas, Sam Madison and Patrick Surtain. They employed a basic scheme that bothered Brady a bunch.
“Best defense I’ve ever played against,” the New England quarterback said recently during his weekly appearance on Boston radio station WEEI. “I had my worst games against the Dolphins. Our passing game against them was terrible.”
Lately it has been a different deal. In his past four starts against Miami, Brady has averaged 313 yards passing and three touchdowns per game, and on Monday night he’ll face a defense that’s much younger following an offseason makeover.
The Dolphins’ unit includes seven players with a total of 55 NFL starts. They’ll face a quarterback making his 131st start — and going for his 100th win.
Brady’s .762 winning percentage is the best of any quarterback with at least 50 starts in the Super Bowl era. Brady and the Patriots are 2-1 this season and chasing the AFC East-leading New York Jets, who won Sunday to improve to 3-1.
That makes Pats-Fins a big game.
“Nobody is going to clinch anything after this weekend,” New England coach Bill Belichick said. “But it would definitely be good to gain an advantage over our division opponent this week. Any division game on the road counts a little more than one game in the standings when you come down to the wire on tiebreakers.”
This one could hinge on whether the Dolphins are able to slow down a New England team averaging an NFL-high 30 points per game. Brady has completed 67 percent of his passes while throwing for eight scores with only two interceptions.
“As usual he has command of the offense and is a big playmaker for us,” Belichick said.
The Dolphins’ defense, prone to breakdowns in pass coverage last year, looked much improved in wins at Buffalo and at Minnesota. But the Jets’ Mark Sanchez threw for three touchdowns a week ago and Miami lost 31-23.
Miami’s secondary includes safety Chris Clemons and cornerbacks Vontae Davis and Jason Allen, each with fewer than 16 starts in the league. Defensive coordinator Mike Nolan concedes the experience gap against Brady could be a problem.
“You’d much rather have 10-year vets going against a 10-year vet, no question,” Nolan said. “You just try to educate them as fast as you can.”
Youthful zeal can compensate for lack of experience, as it did against the Vikings. Miami intercepted Brett Favre three times and recovered his fumble in the end zone for a touchdown.
Despite lapses against the Jets, Miami is a more aggressive, swarming defense under new coordinator Nolan. Among those leading the charge have been the outside linebackers, rookie Koa Misi and second-year pro Cameron Wake.
“Some of it is just the fact they have so much go-get-’em — the mentality of going to the ball and getting there,” Nolan said. “It has them making more plays, as opposed to knowing why they went there. If you ask a veteran player what happened, he can tell you why and how he got there. Some young guys come off and go ‘I don’t know, coach. Is that what you want me do to?’
“Yes, it is.”
The Patriots have youngsters contributing, too, including rookie tight ends Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski. Hernandez leads the team with 211 yards receiving on 13 catches, and Gronkowski has two touchdown receptions.
“For young players, it’s pretty neat to find them playing such a great role on our offense,” Brady said. “With each week, I think they are gaining a little more confidence in what they’re doing through the experience that they’re having, and we’re relying on them every week to be playmakers.”
Tight ends have given the Dolphins trouble this season. Minnesota’s Visanthe Shiancoe had six catches for 86 yards against them, and the Jets’ Dustin Keller had six catches for 98 yards and two scores.
Another issue for the Dolphins will be Randy Moss, who had touchdown catches of 71 and 58 yards against them last year. Second-year pro Davis has won praise for his play lately — the Jets paid a compliment by throwing his way only three times — and he may be assigned to Moss most of the game.
Davis said his matchups against Moss last year were an education.
“Once you play him the first time, you get more comfortable in the league,” Davis said. “You were watching Tom Brady and Randy Moss when you were 8 years old, and now you’re lining up against them. It’s like, ‘Man, do I belong here?’ The more you play, the more you get comfortable.”
Comfortable? Brady sometimes looks as though he’s throwing from a rocking chair. The former sixth-round pick is 33 and has passed for 31,602 yards — nearly 18 miles.
And he said he’s just getting warmed up.
“I want to play for a long time,” he said. “I’d like to think that I’m not at halftime yet.”
This matchup between Brady and the Dolphins’ revamped defense may be only the first of many.