FOXBOROUGH - You can tell postseason time is drawing nigh at Gillette Stadium. It's when the offensive linemen have their playoff beards in full bloom.
Perhaps it is more an act of self-preservation in the face of December's cold, but now that the stubble of training camp has been replaced by the Grizzly Adams look, it is as telltale a sign in this seasonal rite of pigskin as the return of the swallows to San Juan Capristrano.
If right guard Stephen Neal, who was seen yesterday sporting the neatest, most full-bodied beard of the bunch, continues to be hampered by a shoulder injury aggravated in Monday's 27-24 victory at Baltimore and is unable to play tomorrow against the visiting Pittsburgh Steelers, it will be up to Russ Hochstein, as fresh a face (and cleanly shaven, too) as you'll find on the line, to enter the fray.
But it's not like Hochstein will have to sprout a beard before the game to fit in.
"Russ is Russ," said center Dan Koppen. "I mean, you know what you're going to get out of him every week. You know he's going to go out there and play hard and prepare and you know he's done a great job over the years fulfilling that role and you can't say enough about what he does."
Hochstein had almost as big a hand as Jabar Gaffney in helping to keep the Patriots' perfect season intact when he was hit with a false-start penalty that kept the winning drive against the Ravens alive, after Heath Evans was stopped short on fourth and 1 from the Baltimore 30.
On the next play from the 35, Tom Brady scrambled up the middle for a 12-yard gain, and had 5 yards tacked on for a penalty against Ravens cornerback Samari Rolle for illegal contact, giving the Patriots a first down at the Baltimore 18. Five plays later, which included another controversial fourth-down penalty on the Ravens, Brady found Gaffney in the corner of the end zone for the winning 8-yard touchdown.
While left tackle Matt Light proclaimed afterward, "Tonight, the false start saved our life," Hochstein wasn't willing to take the credit. It was, after all, a mistake. His mistake. And he knew in another instance it could have cost the team.
"You never want to do that in that situation," Hochstein said after the game. "I certainly didn't, and we got away with it."
Hochstein realizes he cannot repeat such a mistake against the Steelers' defense, which leads the NFL in total (230.8 yards per game), passing (154.0), and scoring defense (12.9 points).
"They're a very good team and they play very good together and their defense causes a lot of problems," Hochstein said. "They're a very solid defense that's been playing together a long time and they're very experienced."
Asked if Pittsburgh's zone blitzes complicate matters, Hochstein said, "They play so well together, it doesn't matter what they do. They can create turnovers and cause any offense problems. I don't know about starting, but I know that it doesn't matter who's in there, we all try to work very hard together and execute at a high level."
Ryan O'Callaghan. Billy Yates. Wesley Britt. Hochstein. In the eyes of coach Bill Belichick, all the reserves have contributed to making the Patriots' offensive line an operation built upon the sum of its interchangeable parts.
"It's a good group," Belichick said. "They work hard. They work well together. Dante [Scarnecchia] mixes them in in practice so they all get a lot of reps. When you're just kind of watching the offense and you're not really focusing all of your attention on the offensive line, you kind of don't realize who's in there.
"You might go back and look and say, 'Oh, that was Wes at tackle,' or 'That was Russ at guard,' 'That was Billy at guard,' or Steve or Logan [Mankins] or - I'm not saying they all look the same, I don't mean it that way. I'm just saying in terms of execution that it's not real noticeable when one player's in there or one isn't."
It certainly hasn't caused running back Laurence Maroney to notice the difference in personnel.
"Our line is so good and has so much depth, it doesn't matter who plays what position, they're going to do the job," he said. "We've got an excellent offensive line group. All of them can get the job done."
So even if Neal, who was listed as questionable yesterday after his limited participation in practice, cannot start against the Steelers, no one expects a precipitous drop in execution.
"They all seem to function and operate well together, and certainly Russ is a part of that unit," Belichick said. "He's played center and guard for us, even at times briefly tackle and tight end, in some multiple-tight-end packages. So he's a versatile guy, a smart, tough kid, and has played well for us when he's had the opportunity to - as has Billy, as has Wes, Ryan, and the other five guys. I think we're very fortunate there. They're unselfish and they work hard."
With four regular-season games left and the playoffs looming, the only work left for the reserve linemen, it seems, would be on their playoff beards. And judging by the facial growth of the starting five, they'll have a lot of work to do.
Michael Vega can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.