- The Washington Times - Friday, February 1, 2008

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — They have three Pro Bowl members but not one of the stature of a Jonathan Ogden, a Steve Hutchinson or an Orlando Pace. Even though they’re all facially hirsute, they don’t even have a nickname like The Hogs or The Electric Company.

But the New England Patriots wouldn’t be 18-0 and a victory from a fourth Super Bowl title in seven years or have scored the most points in NFL history if their no-name offensive line didn’t work together so smoothly.

New England’s offensive line allowed just 21 sacks — the fewest in a 16-game season in franchise history.

They’ve had an incredible season, record-setting quarterback Tom Brady said.

Even with the right side of Stephen Neal and Nick Kaczur sitting out with injuries, the Patriots held the New York Giants’ league-leading pass rush to a single sack in a 38-35 victory in the regular-season finale that served as a prelude to Sunday’s rematch in Super Bowl XLII.

They probably work the best together of any offensive line that I’ve seen, said Giants Pro Bowl defensive end Osi Umenyiora, who was shut out by Patriots Pro Bowl left tackle Matt Light on Dec. 29. The key to winning this game is for us to get pressure on Tom Brady. If we don’t do that, I don’t think we have a chance of winning.

Chance is also the word used by longtime Patriots offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia.

A lot of the same type of blue-collar guys, Scarnecchia said of his group, ages 25 to 31, who hang together on and off the field. We’re not terribly big. We’re not terribly talented, but we have a very good work ethic. They seem to understand conceptually the importance of working together, of seeing the game through the same set of eyes. And if they do that we have a chance to be successful.

The five linemen had eight Super Bowl rings and only one Pro Bowl selection before 2007.

Light, the senior member of the group and a two-time Pro Bowl pick, has been a starter since he was taken in the second round of the 2001 draft out of Purdue. Now he performs the same job for Brady while also keeping things, well … light.

Back in training camp, Light had backup linebacker Pierre Woods convinced he had won the lottery before revealing the ticket was counterfeit.

Matt’s eccentric, Neal said.

Kaczur, a third-rounder who also became a starter as a rookie in 2005, is so reserved that Scarnecchia and center Dan Koppen merely described him as Canadian, as if that said it all. Neal called the former construction worker who played at Toledo country-strong.

Pro Bowl left guard Logan Mankins, the last pick of the first round in 2005 out of Fresno State, was raised on a 10,000-acre ranch in California and is a prize-winning calf roper. At 6-foot-4 and 310 pounds, Mankins is surprisingly nimble and is the line’s top player.

Logan gives us the kind of athlete that we didn’t have in there before, Scarnecchia said.

Neal has the most unconventional background. He didn’t play football at Cal State-Bakersfield, where his Neal Double move helped him become a two-time NCAA championship wrestler. Signed after the 2001 draft, Neal bombed as a defensive lineman. His switch to the other side of the ball was finally complete in 2004 when he became a starter.

Stephen has progressed really well, Scarnecchia said. You can’t teach the balance and recoverability and the things he can do because of his wrestling background. He’s a tough guy to knock off his feet, and he’s a naturally aggressive guy.

Koppen, who’s a little more cerebral, prepared himself for his career as a center by majoring in management at Boston College.

Koppen’s really smart, very tough-minded, Scarnecchia said of the fifth-rounder in 2003 who was another immediate starter. He sees the game, the way you want the center to. He’s not just focused on a small area. He sees the whole picture. And a result of that, he’s able to communicate things that could potentially happen.

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