Ross Tucker: Rating the four offensive lines left in the playoffs - Sports Illustrated

Walking the line

Publish date:

Commonly held NFL wisdom states that a team will only go as far in the playoffs as its quarterback takes it. This theory isn't necessarily true. No one would argue the Chargers' Philip Rivers is a better quarterback than the Colts' PeytonManning or that the Giants' EliManning has produced a better body of work this season than the Cowboys' Tony Romo. Upset wins by San Diego and New York prove it's not the QBs. Games are ultimately won and lost in the trenches.

The offensive lines for the Chargers and Giants clearly outplayed their counterparts on the Colts and Cowboys. The blocking units of the Patriots and Packers showed how vital the play of the most overlooked men on the field can be.

The best lines in the playoffs are those that possess the greatest mental and physical toughness. Ill-timed false starts and holding penalties can be the difference between wins and losses. With that in mind, I've ranked the four remaining offensive lines based on which group I think will play best under the intense pressure of the remaining games.

The most playoff-tested group remaining, the Patriots have a host of advantages over the other offensive lines. They have played at least two playoff games every year since 2002 and know this situation well.

Even more important, they have maintained the same starting lineup, excluding injuries, for the past three seasons. Contrary to what some GMs and head coaches believe, continuity is integral to the success of the offensive line. The Patriots clearly realize that. All five starters are home-grown products. MattLight, Logan Mankins, Dan Koppen, Nick Kaczur are all New England draft picks while Stephen Neal was signed as an undrafted free agent.

Mankins is the clear-cut star of this group and is already challenging SteveHutchinson for the title of the best guard in football. He has great natural power and athleticism, but he's really getting his due this season because of his temperament. Mankins seems much more interested in mauling and punishing his defender than he does in simply blocking them.

The two most experienced and well-paid members of the unit, Light and Koppen get by primarily on quickness, technique and intelligence. Light does not have the prototypical body for an elite left tackle, but plays with a low center of gravity that allows him to play light on his feet yet maintain his power. Koppen is the brains of the unit but is fortunate to play in a system that does not lean heavily on line calls made from the center position.

The right side of the line is clearly the less-accomplished side of the Patriots unit. At times, right guard Neal suffers from poor technique, but is able to utilize his amazing recovery skills to get the job done even if he gets off balance during the course of the play. The weak link for the Pats, which the Chargers will attempt to expose, is right tackle Kaczur. He struggles against elite pass rushers without help. Bill Belichick will likely develop a game plan to aid Kaczur in obvious pass-rushing situations, lest he be exposed by Chargers rushers Shawne Merriman and Shaun Phillips.

Veteran offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia deserves a ton of credit for bringing this unit together and getting the most out of the talent it has.

The Chargers line had been criticized by some for underachieving earlier in the year. The fact they won a playoff game in Indianapolis with Rivers and LaDainianTomlinson on the bench says plenty about this group.

Their exploits were highlighted by their outstanding downfield blocking on a number of screens throughout the game, and by their ability to maintain focus despite the raucous crowd in the RCA Dome. The Chargers rose to the challenge in a hostile environment because of the time Rivers and Billy Volek were afforded against a usually ferocious Indy pass rush.

Left tackle Marcus McNeill has dropped off a bit from his Pro Bowl rookie season, but rose to the challenge Sunday against Colts rushers RobertMathis and Josh Thomas. Left guard Kris Dielman is a Mankins clone and equally excited to smash defenders into the ground and play the role of enforcer.

Nick Hardwick does a great job of setting the blocking schemes and getting his hands on linebackers on the second level. Mike Goff was an outstanding free-agent signing by Chargers GM A.J. Smith and is solid, if not spectacular, every week.

Much like the Patriots, the Chargers greatest area of concern is at right tackle. First-year man Jeromey Clary has taken over for Shane Olivea and proved more than capable in completely shutting down the Colts' RaheemBrock. Despite that performance, Clary is raw and inexperienced and the Pats will test him with the power of Ty Warren and MikeVrabel'sspeed off the edge.

Giantsoffensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride deserves credit for his offensive game plans in recent weeks. Gilbride's fondness for the passing game has been tabled in favor of a ball-control, move-the-chains type of attack that does not put too much onus on Eli Manning. Gilbride feels comfortable calling plays in this fashion because of the stellar performance of his offensive line, a unit that practically willed the Giants into the playoffs with their devastation of the Bills defense during the second half of the Week 16 game in Buffalo.

The best player at his respective position for the Giants is right guard ChrisSnee, but the most impressive performer to date has been new left tackle DavidDiehl. He has started at every position except center along the offensive line for the Giants and has been more than adequate going against the opponent's premier pass rusher. Lacking both the long arms and flashy feet of a typical left tackle, Diehl has been more than serviceable yet still represents an area the Packers may try to exploit.

Snee is a powerful sparkplug who is considered to be among the top guards in the NFL. Left guard Rich Seubert is an average player who continues to impress with his hustle and effort after overcoming a potentially career-ending broken leg earlier in his career. Right tackle Kareem McKenzie will have his hands full Sunday against the high-motor and picture-perfect technique of the Packers' Aaron Kampman.

Steady and heady center Shaun O'Hara validated the Giants' decision to give him a new contract in the off-season when he returned from a knee injury suffered against the Patriots in Week 17 to neutralize the Cowboys' nose guards last Sunday.

This is a Ted Thompson-drafted interior trio led by former seventh-round pick center Scott Wells. His sideboards are left guard Daryn Colledge and right guard Jason Spitz, both 2006 picks. The young triumvirate is flanked by veteran stalwarts Chad Clifton and Mark Tauscher.

This unit went from being roundly criticized earlier in the season for an inability to open holes in the running game to a well-respected zone-blocking squad that created big openings for running back Ryan Grant in the second half of the season.

Clifton, the left tackle, is the most accomplished of the bunch, and for good reason. Never mentioned in the same breath as Jonathan Ogden, OrlandoPace or Chris Samuels, Clifton is an elite player with an outstanding combination of size, athleticism and technique. He is not nearly as well respected by the mainstream media as he is among players and coaches throughout the league.

His fellow bookend, Tauscher, is perhaps best known for his doughy physique and poor technique. Tauscher somehow finds a way to utilize his body positioning and good feet into a productive performance. In a result-oriented business, Tauscher gets the job done. He will have a very difficult match-up with Michael Strahan on Sunday.

Wells is similar to Koppen of the Patriots and uses his initial quickness off the snap to be effective. Colledge and Spitz are improving but still represent a problem for the Packers. Spitz has been more consistent on the right side than Colledge has been on the left side. The Packers had high hopes for Colledge when they drafted him, yet the second-rounder was benched at one point this season in favor of Junius Coston. Look for the Giants to have Justin Tuck line up inside over Colledge in certain pass-rush situations.