TO BE AN offensive lineman is to be oversized, bearded, Bunyanesque. It is to be written about in generalizations, because a line functions as a unit, and the distinctions between its members are rarely noteworthy. The offensive linemen play golf together. The offensive line plays board games. These rituals make for neat little stories, because the idea of 6'6", 350-pound men doing anything but crashing around in the trenches feels unfathomable.
But the Patriots' offensive line has no such stories. What do you all do together? We spend time with our families. We eat. The Patriot Way has permeated even these largest of fellows, but eventually left tackle Nate Solder cracks. Thanksgiving, he says. There was a dinner. This is not a stunning reveal, even after right guard Josh Kline cops to the fact that there were three turkeys. But Solder continues: Dan Connolly, the nine-year veteran, cooked. Connolly is pretty much a gourmet chef: Solder remembers a day last season when the left guard served the group homemade root beer with homemade ice cream. Center Ryan Wendell chimes in: Connolly's pork steaks, he says, are his favorite.
"The thing that I like to do the most is to make things from scratch that people typically don't," Connolly says. "Homemade bacon, sausages, salami."
As the linemen recount the highlights of Thanksgiving, they realize the secret is out. They have a bearded Julia Child in their midst. And they are, to their collective chagrin, interesting.
On Sunday, for the second straight game, the Patriots' O-line lived up to that billing on the field. Early in the season the unit took flak for allowing 13 sacks of Tom Brady through six games. But by midseason a measure of stability settled in. The lineup that would allow just four sacks from Week 8 through Week 15 was set: Solder at left tackle, Connolly at left guard, rookie Bryan Stork at center, Wendell at right guard and Sebastian Vollmer at right tackle. Connolly missed three games with injuries, but for the most part, the roles were established.
And then, in the divisional round, the Ravens happened. Stork injured his knee in the second quarter, and Bill Belichick began to scheme.
The group moved into an array of combinations that included a four-lineman set, which incited the ire of Baltimore coach John Harbaugh, who termed it "deception." (Maybe, but it's legal.) Belichick went back to the line-shifting against the Colts, playing a cat-and-mouse game with five (or four, or six) giant cats.
Belichick kept the Indianapolis defense guessing, and the offensive line allowed just one sack and paved the way for LeGarrette Blount's 148 rushing yards and three touchdowns. "They played awesome," Blount said. "They opened up huge holes for me. I want to get the credit for it, but you have to credit those guys."
The unit did more than block on Sunday. In the third quarter, for what seemed like the hundredth time that night, a lineman was announced as an eligible receiver. This time it was Solder, who became a lineman at Colorado after being recruited as a tight end. He ended up wide-open, Tom Brady threw him the ball, and the 320-pounder rumbled toward the end zone. "I don't remember half the play," Solder says. He is informed that he stretched across the goal line. Touchdown, 16 yards.
When did he snap back to reality? When the offensive line—as a unit—piled on top of him in celebration.
AN EARLY LOOK AT SUPERBOWL XLIX