by Christopher Price
The last time the Patriots faced the Giants — in that famous Week 17 clash at the Meadowlands — the right side of the New England offensive line consisted of second-year Ryan O’Callaghan at right tackle and all-purpose utilityman Russ Hochstein at right guard. New England rushed for just 44 yards and barely came away with a 38-35 win.
This time around, starting right guard Stephen Neal and starting right tackle Nick Kaczur are expected to be healthy enough to play. If their recent performance is any indication, the Giants’ defense — particularly their run stoppers — could be in for a long night a week from Sunday in Super Bowl XLII.
“Russ and Ryan came in and stepped in there when they needed to; they’ve done a great job for us,” said center Dan Koppen. “But Steve and Nick, they’re our guys,”
Back in that December matchup, O’Callaghan and Hochstein did a great job of helping blunt the Giants’ vaunted pass rush, as the Patriots’ offensive line held the likes of Michael Strahan, Osi Umenyiora and Justin Tuck to just one sack on the night. But with its starting offensive line in place for both playoff games, New England has averaged 147 rushing yards in the postseason, grinding out 145 against Jacksonville and 149 against San Diego.
This postseason, the Patriots have been able to dominate on the ground for several reasons. Bad weather has placed a renewed emphasis on the running game. In addition, favorable matchups have allowed the backs to flourish — the Jags were playing nickel and dime coverage much of the night in the divisional playoffs, concentrating on stopping the New England passing game as opposed to the running backs. There was also the move from three- and four-wides to a two- and three-tight end set against the Chargers that paid dividends down the stretch in the form of big yards on the ground.
But a large part of it can also be found in the fact that New England has had its starting offensive line — Kaczur, Neal, Koppen, left guard Logan Mankins and left tackle Matt Light — together for back-to-back games for the first time since early December.
“We expect that from them — they consistently do it,” said fullback Heath Evans after Sunday’s win over the Chargers. “Those guys have played together for a long time.”
It’s not just lately — the last six times the Patriots had their starting offensive line on the field as a group, they rushed for less than 90 yards only once when they had 48 yards in a Nov. 18 win over the Bills in Buffalo.
According to Koppen, it’s not an accident that continuity has bred a successful offensive line. When you play alongside someone for an extended period of time, you develop a level of trust that isn’t there if you’re constantly shuffling guys in and out of the lineup.
“It’s important,” he said recently. “We’ve got guys that have been around here for a number of years, and we know what’s expected of each of those guys, and we know what they’re going to do and what their role on our offense is.
“When you’re rolling the same five guys out there — or six, or seven, for that matter, which we’ve had over the course of this year — it’s important to know what they do. It’s important to have trust in them, and really just build on that each week and try to get better.”
STAT OF THE WEEK
13. The number of passes that have been thrown in the direction of Patriots’ running back Kevin Faulk since the start of the postseason. He’s caught all 13.
QUOTE OF THE WEEK
“Just give an old man a chance.” —Patriots linebacker Junior Seau, 39, answering a question about his mindset when he decided to come to New England before the start of last season.
Christopher Price is an award-winning sportswriter who has covered the Patriots since 2001 for Boston Metro. He’s served a contributor to ESPN.com, SI.com, The Boston Globe, The Washington Post and The Miami Herald. He’s written “The Blueprint: How the New England Patriots Beat the System to Create the Last Great NFL Superpower,” and can be reached at [email protected].