There was a time, not so long ago, when the New England Patriots seemed vulnerable.
There also was a time — very, very long ago — when the Dolphins defense actually frustrated Tom Brady.
Unfortunately for Miami, the former hasn’t been the case in five weeks, and the latter hasn’t been the case in five years.
When the steamrolling Patriots visit Sun Life Stadium on Sunday, Miami will be facing an offensive juggernaut that’s averaging 43.8 points during its ongoing five-game winning streak.
The defense also will be facing a quarterback that has tormented the Dolphins more than any other player has in recent years.
And they will be a facing a team that has won 19 consecutive games in the second half of the season, dating to 2010. New England can clinch the AFC East title with a win.
“We got a monster coming in here next week,” Dolphins running back Reggie Bush said.
If there’s any consolation for Miami, it’s this: New England will be without elite tight end Rob Gronkowski, who is mending a broken forearm.
But they still will have plenty of ammunition: Brady, tight end Aaron Hernandez, wide receiver Wes Welker and emerging running back Stevan Ridley (939 yards rushing, 4.6 yards per carry).
Beyond their offensive explosiveness, they are plus-24 in turnover margin.
“We’re going to have to play our best game of the year to win,” Dolphins coach Joe Philbin said. “It’s going to be fun, a great opportunity to see where we are as a team. We are going to have to score points to beat this team. That puts pressure on your offense.”
The Patriots were 3-3 after early season losses to Arizona, Baltimore and Seattle. Every team in the AFC East was 3-3 at that point, in fact. Since then, they have beaten the Jets twice, with wins over St. Louis, Buffalo and the Colts sandwiched in between.
So how do you defend them?
“I’m open for any suggestions,” defensive coordinator Kevin Coyle cracked Monday.
But seriously, Coyle said, “They’re not a team that uses a lot of trickery. They do a great job of working matchups. When you do things to try to negate their passing game, they’re very effective running the ball. . . .
“Brady doesn’t make mistakes — he has three interceptions, 24 touchdowns. We didn’t have great success against them in Cincinnati (when Coyle was defensive backs coach). Hopefully, we do a better job here.”
The Dolphins’ struggles defending the pass — Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson had 16 consecutive completions against the Dolphins at one point Sunday — doesn’t bode well with Brady visiting Sunday.
Brady’s career against the Dolphins has followed an interesting arc.
For 10 consecutive games earlier in his career — when Jason Taylor and Zach Thomas were in their prime — the Dolphins flummoxed Brady, and he posted a quarterback rating between 52 and 78 in each of those games. The low point was a 21-0 loss in 2006, when Brady threw for just 78 yards.
In his nine games against Miami since then, Brady has consistently ranged from very good to extraordinary. Consider:
In his past seven games against the Dolphins, Brady completed 68 percent of his passes, averaged 315 yards and threw 17 touchdowns and just four interceptions. The Patriots won six of those games, excluding the two Brady missed with an injury that cost him all but one game of the 2008 season.
Brady’s numbers are absurd in his past four games at Sun Life Stadium: 91 of 126 (72.2 percent), with an average of 344 yards passing per game, 13 touchdowns and three interceptions. His ratings in those games: 121.6, 107.1, 101.5 and a perfect 158.3.
He threw for 517 yards in the Patriots’ season-opening 38-24 win here last season, then passed for 304 in Miami’s 27-24 loss in New England on Christmas Eve.
And Sunday, he will be facing a Dolphins secondary that is still experimenting at one corner spot. In the wake of Nolan Carroll’s four-penalty game in Buffalo, the Dolphins split time between Carroll and R.J. Stanford on Sunday against the Seahawks. Carroll played 31 snaps, Stanford 28.
“We felt (Stanford) earned some opportunities in practice,” Philbin said. “He did some good things out there. There are still some things he has to do better.”
Should the Dolphins dial up blitzes or should they use extra defensive backs in coverage?
“It’s pick your poison,” Coyle said. “We are a pressure team to a high degree. We’re not going to change what we do. We’re going to have to do some of both. He’s not the most mobile quarterback we’ve faced.”
PATRIOTS NOTES: New England has scored at least 37 points in each of its last four games and the scary part is that the Patriots have taken their foot off the gas in each one. Playing without star tight end Rob Gronkowski (broken forearm), New England didn’t miss a beat last week as Brady threw for three touchdowns and ran for another. Brady is a big player in the MVP race. He is second in passer rating, fourth in TD passes (24) and fifth in passing yardage. Patriots DE Jermaine Cunningham was suspended four games for violating the NFL’s policy on performance-enhancing substances. If he does not appeal he will not be available until Week 17. WR Julian Edelman is questionable with a head injury.
DOLPHINS NOTES: Known for its defense, Miami has actually been gashed by the passing game this season. The Dolphins rank 27th against the pass and they can’t count on the takeaways when they face Brady, who has been picked off just three times on the season. The Dolphins are minus-10 in turnover ratio while New England leads the NFL at plus-26. The Dolphins hope to control the ball against the Pats after rushing for 189 yards against the Seahawks last week, their second-best total of the season. Reggie Bush finally had a solid game with 87 yards, including a nifty 21-yard scoring run. Miami trails Indianapolis (7-4), Cincinnati (6-5) and sinking Pittsburgh (6-5) in the wild card standings.