Sports

It's A Fine Line

Offensive linemen Logan Mankins (70) and Russ Hochstein have helped lift quarterback Tom Brady and the unbeaten Patriots to unprecedented levels of success this season and within reach of their fourth Super Bowl title this decade.
Offensive linemen Logan Mankins (70) and Russ Hochstein have helped lift quarterback Tom Brady and the unbeaten Patriots to unprecedented levels of success this season and within reach of their fourth Super Bowl title this decade. AP

What a rascal that Matt Light is. The Patriots' left tackle organizes a trip to a Bass Pro Shops store for a little bow-and-arrow target shooting contest among his linemates, part of an ESPN feature to be aired before a Monday Night Football game this season.

Of course, the competition is, shall we say, rigged. Light is an experienced bowhunter who has bagged plenty of deer, turkey and other birds. Guess who hits the bull's-eye.

To top it off, he sets up Russ Hochstein, the line's supersub. When Hochstein walks over to the target to retrieve his arrow, the other linemen shoot him from behind -- not with their pointed shafts, thank God, but with soft pellets from air guns.

Whether it's carrying on like Robin Hood and his Merry Men, racing go-karts, playing dominoes in the locker room or simply going out to dinner, New England's offensive linemen -- Light, left guard and Mariposa High School graduate Logan Mankins, center Dan Koppen, right guard Stephen Neal, right tackle Nick Kaczur and Hochstein -- know how to have a good time.

"If you shadowed us and saw what we do on a regular basis, you would see we enjoy each other's company a lot, we have a lot of fun together, and we pull a lot of pranks," Light says. "But when it comes down to football, and how we play, and what we have to do to help win games, we're very serious about that."

You might say when they trade in their bows and arrows for helmets and pads, they're nothing but straight shooters.

The O-line has played a significant role in the pursuit of perfection by the Patriots, who are 17-0 and one victory from playing in their fourth Super Bowl in seven years. Next up for New England is San Diego in the AFC Championship Game on Sunday in Foxborough.

The Patriots posted some extraordinary numbers on offense this season. Tom Brady threw an NFL-record 50 touchdown passes, Randy Moss had a league-record 23 scoring receptions, Wes Welker tied for the league lead with 112 catches, the Patriots scored a record 589 points, and -- though the aerial fireworks obscured it -- the running game was effective when it had to be.

Behind those numbers, executing their jobs with consistency and efficiency but in virtual anonymity, were Light (16 starts), Mankins (16), Koppen (15), Neal (eight), Kaczur (15) and Hochstein, who because of injuries made seven starts at right guard and one at center. Opposing players and coaches have taken notice. Light and Mankins were selected to the Pro Bowl as starters, and Koppen was chosen as a backup.

"They've got one of the best offensive lines in football," an AFC director of pro scouting says. "When you watch them play, I don't see anyone getting any pressure on Brady. He sits back there and can pick you apart."

That's what Brady did to Jacksonville on Saturday in a 31-20 divisional playoff victory. The Jaguars' plan was to take away the outside receivers and deep ball -- home run threat Moss caught one pass for 14 yards -- with a cover 2 scheme that dropped seven and sometimes eight defenders into coverage. No matter. Brady dinked and dunked his way to a 26-of-28 passing performance, setting an NFL record for the highest completion rate (92.9 percent) in a game -- postseason or regular season.

"It's easy when you have receivers that are open all the time and an offensive line that never lets anyone touch you," Brady says.

The linemen shield Brady with the tenacity of a father whose daughter is going on her first date. The Patriots allowed 21 sacks in the regular season, the fifth-lowest total in the league. They gave up fewer than 30 sacks for the fourth year in a row; only the Colts and Packers have allowed fewer over the same period. This season, according to Stats LLC, the linemen were flagged only 12 times for false starts and seven times for holding -- two penalties that often derail a drive.

This isn't the most physically imposing outfit.

Light, Mankins, Neal and Kaczur all are 6 feet 4 inches, and Koppen is 6-2. Kaczur is the heaviest (315 pounds) and Koppen the lightest (296). They almost look like they came out of the same mold, which is somewhat small by NFL standards.

"Their size is real average," says former 49ers lineman Randy Cross, an analyst for CBS who has done the Patriots' preseason games on local TV for five years. "But they're extremely powerful, they're well-coached, and from a technique and fundamentals standpoint, they're about as solid as anyone out there."

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