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Offensive line plays a game of 'survivor'

FOXBOROUGH -- The once-crowded locker room was beginning to clear, and several of the Patriots' offensive linemen were getting set to check out when they decided to get together for a picture with the Lamar Hunt Trophy, given to the American Football Conference champions.

Joe Andruzzi held the trophy at waist level. Dan Koppen, Tom Ashworth, Russ Hochstein, and Brandon Gorin gathered around him. Nearby, Damien Woody wrapped up an interview so he could get in the photo. Andruzzi yelled for Matt Light.

The scene, which occurred Sunday night following a second consecutive sack-free playoff game, resembled one from a high school or college graduation. Except the caps were decorated with "New England Patriots, 2003 AFC Champions" instead of tassels, and they wore oversized (even for NFL linemen) commemorative T-shirts instead of gowns. Other than that, they looked like a bunch of schoolboys, at once playful and proud. They have grown together, experienced four years' worth of adversity over the course of 22 games. If one were to assign the snapshot a caption, it could read, "Against All Odds."

It would have been prophetic if, last spring, offensive line coaches Dante Scarnecchia and Jeff Davidson had instructed their pupils to look around at one another before telling them, "Get a good look, because a lot of your peers won't be here when you graduate."

With the exception of Woody, those who posed for the picture Sunday, plus Wilbert Brown, are the last linemen standing on the last team standing in the AFC. Several came and went. Others weren't fortunate enough to make it through the conference playoffs and to the Super Bowl, where the seven who are remaining will oppose one of the best defensive lines in pro football, that of the Carolina Panthers.

Years from now, the survivors will be able to point to most of the people in the photo and tell a fascinating story.

Ashworth wasn't supposed to be the right tackle for a Super Bowl team. Two years ago he was on the Patriots' practice squad. Last year he played in one game. Ashworth, who was undrafted, came into this season looking up at former second-round pick Adrian Klemm and fourth-rounder Kenyatta Jones on the depth chart. Klemm started the first three games before going down with a knee injury. His season ended Oct. 18, when New England placed him on injured reserve. As for Jones, he had surgery on both knees in the offseason, and just as he was to begin practicing, he was arrested for allegedly pouring scalding water on his roommate. The Patriots released him Oct. 25.

After the Super Bowl two years ago, a mysterious virus attacked Andruzzi's body and didn't stop until the following season. He had major surgery on his right knee in the offseason and missed part of training camp. Andruzzi and Light are the only two Patriots linemen to start every game this season.

Koppen was New England's fifth-round pick in last spring's draft, out of Boston College. By the season's second game, he was the starting center.

Hochstein played in one game last year. He made it to the final cut last training camp but was released Aug. 31. New England signed him to the practice squad the next day. The Patriots signed him to the active roster Sept. 14. Hochstein is the starting left guard today because Woody, who moved from center to guard in Game 3 following Mike Compton's season-ending foot injury, is on injured reserve after tearing the medial collateral ligament in his right knee.

Brown was claimed off waivers from the Redskins Sept. 22. He could be at home right now. Instead he's New England's only backup guard. He was active for the first time in 12 games Sunday. Gorin was on the Patriots practice squad all of last year. Now he's their only backup tackle. He was in for Ashworth for a series Sunday.

Remember Bill Conaty? The Patriots signed the former Bills center July 3. They placed him on IR Aug. 26, then released him five days later. And here's a blast from the not-so-distant past: Brendan Stai. He came aboard July 28 to compete for one of the guard spots. He retired Aug. 10. Corbin Lacina, a guard, was here for, oh, about 10 days. And don't forget the former wrestler, Stephen Neal, who was supposed to compete at guard before a shoulder operation in the summer changed that.

Names have changed. Positions have changed. But the commitment always has been there. And without the O-line, the Patriots wouldn't be here, in the Super Bowl.

They created enough space in the Indianapolis defense Sunday for Antowain Smith to rush for 100 yards on 22 carries. And they kept Tom Brady from being sacked.

The line's next challenge is the Panthers' foursome of Julius Peppers, Kris Jenkins, Brentson Buckner, and Mike Rucker.

"This team works hard," Light said. "The guys that we have backing up, they're in there doing the same things that the guys that are starting are doing. Everybody's focused around here. We don't slack. We don't feel like we've got anything won."

"I thought our offensive line did a nice job," Bill Belichick said yesterday. "They opened some big holes in the running game and they did a good job in protection. The Colts ran a lot of zone blitzes like they always do. I thought that the communication and the pickup by our offensive line was solid." Good teaching has had something to do with it.

"Dante has done a terrific job with that group all the way through," Belichick said. "It's had a number of different faces in it. It's maintained the continuity. I think that's a good word. Dante's done an outstanding job with each of those players individually, but then collectively having the unit mesh together. He's one of the best coaches that I've ever worked with."

Scarnecchia has had quite a few students come through Gillette Stadium this year. Fortunately for the Patriots, enough of them are still around.

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