FOXBOROUGH - The offensive line is like a compass for an offense: it points in its true direction.
Peel away the NFL-record 589 points and 75 touchdowns, forget about Tom Brady flinging the ball all over the field or Randy Moss shredding defenses as if they were
Like the prolific unit it anchors, the offensive line, which when healthy features left tackle Matt Light, left guard Logan Mankins, center Dan Koppen, right guard Stephen Neal, and right tackle Nick Kaczur, is difficult to define and even harder to defend.
Against the Pittsburgh Steelers Dec. 9, they allowed Brady to attempt 46 passes and throw for 399 yards and four touchdowns with no sacks and nary a scratch. The next week they took the perpetual-motion, moving-parts defensive scheme of New York Jets coach Eric Mangini and perpetually moved it out of the way to the tune of 131 yards rushing.
Who knows what shape they'll take on Sunday against the San Diego Chargers in the AFC Championship game, but it will be whatever one the game plan calls for.
"They operate within the system and what the system is asking of them," said former NFL center and current NFL Network analyst Jamie Dukes. "This isn't like Alex Gibbs zone-blocking with 285-pound tackles. The system [in New England] is we do whatever we want to do. If we want to throw the ball 50 times that's what we do. We want to run it 50 times because we see something in the game plan, that's what we want to do."
Although, they'll never enjoy the matinee idol status of Brady or the awe-filled adoration of Moss, the offensive line has received its share of kudos this season.
Besides their Pro Bowl selections, Light, Koppen, and Mankins, who may be the team's most consistent every-down lineman, were all named All-Pro. Light was a first-team selection, while Koppen and Mankins earned second-team honors.
Koppen said it's nice for the line to be recognized, but individual accomplishments don't win football games. From Koppen's point of view, at the center of the offensive line - the ultimate team unit in the ultimate team game - that's the only stance you could take. It embodies what the line stands for - gridiron gestalt.
"I could find you a better player at every one of those positions around the league," said Dukes. "I could find you a better guy, but it's like the glove and the hand. Those five guys work well together and in synch."
Sometimes life imitates art and that was the case this season for Brady, who did a memorable Visa commercial with his linemen in 2005. He really did have "five layers of protection" this season, allowing him to throw an NFL-record 50 touchdown passes.
New England's offensive line allowed just 21 sacks, the fewest ever for the Patriots in a 16-game regular season. In typical lineman fashion, Koppen deflected any attention.
"I think as a line, we're really happy to see him get that record just because that's our guy back there and we want him to succeed as much as the team," said Koppen. "It was nice to have, but Tom's done a nice job of putting us in the right position all year. He deserves a lot of credit for this offense."
Don't peg the playoff-bearded bunch as simply a pass-protecting line.
The Patriots averaged 4.10 yards per rush this season, their most since the 1985 Patriots averaged 4.13. During the regular season, New England averaged 4 yards or more per rush on 46.8 percent of its carries, leading the AFC and ranking second in the NFL. Laurence Maroney has rushed for 100 yards or more in three of the last four games, including 122 and a touchdown on 22 carries in the Patriots' 31-20 playoff win over the Jacksonville Jaguars last Saturday.
That performance impressed former San Francisco 49ers right guard/center Randy Cross.
"Last week, there wasn't a more surprised group of individuals than the Jacksonville Jaguars. The Patriots were running a simple power play and pulling the backside guard [Neal] and just killing them on that," said Cross, an analyst for CBS.
"Tom's 26 of 28 [passing] was really, really impressive, but if you had told the average analyst or football fan that they were going to run for 145 yards on the Jacksonville defense they would have looked at you funny and said, 'New England doesn't run the ball that good.' . . . You start studying tapes, and you notice things change, guys are doing different things on different weeks against different opponents."
Cross, who is an analyst for the Patriots' exhibition games, said all of the linemen selected by coach Bill Belichick and vice president of player personnel Scott Pioli profile similarly.
"They're probably in my mind, besides the linebackers, the best example of what Bill Belichick and Scott Pioli have done personnel-wise," said Cross. "I go to the Senior Bowl every year and you can look at players and watch them during practice and say that will be a perfect Patriots lineman or linebacker, guys that fit a certain mold."
None are overwhelmingly big, but they're agile and intelligent, versatile and teachable. Of the regular starters, Kaczur is the biggest at 315 pounds. Light, the line's ringleader and resident prankster, is actually undersized as a 305-pound left tackle. The same goes for Koppen, the line's quarterback, who weighs just 296.
What they lack in size they compensate for with technique and the teachings of reclusive-but-revered line coach Dante Scarnecchia, whom Cross called one of the rare assistant coaches who makes a big difference.
"The line is all about technique," said Koppen.
The Patriots have also made it a point to develop depth on the offensive line. Last year they kept reserve Billy Yates, who started at right guard this season in the Week 2 meeting against the Chargers, by placing him on the practice squad, but paying him the NFL minimum for a member of the active roster.
Seven-year veteran Russ Hochstein, who started at left guard for the Patriots in Super XXXVIII, replaced Koppen at center for one game and started seven games at right guard in place of Neal, including the final four of the regular season. Second-year tackle Ryan O'Callaghan filled in for Kaczur in the regular-season finale against the Giants.
"They've proven it's not just five guys," said Cross. "They've gone about eight deep, had Neal out, had Kaczur out, Koppen has missed time. That to me is the most significant thing."
That and the line's ability to take the shape of any game plan offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels draws up.
"It's like that consummate salesman," said Cross. "What do you got? I don't know. What do you need? What kind of offense do you run? What kind of offense do you need?"
Christopher L. Gasper can be reached at email@example.com.