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Offensive lines key to Super Bowl for Patriots, Rams

The Associated Press
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New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady has not been sacked this postseason.

ATLANTA — The Los Angeles Rams and New England Patriots are bringing two of the top scoring offenses in the NFL to the Super Bowl.

The reason they have played so well has a lot to do with the big guys playing up front.

Los Angeles had the same offensive line starters for all 16 regular-season games and both playoff contests. Their consistency has been key to everything Rams coach Sean McVay does with a team that averaged 32.9 points, ranked second in the league.

A line that has nobody who has ever played in a Super Bowl is being rewarded.

“Having that consistency is big in everything we do,” left tackle Andrew Whitworth said. “We know each other very well at this point, and that’s something that you can rely on when you’re in a tight game, when you need to execute at an important time in the game.”

The line has been just as dependable for the Patriots.

Tom Brady has not been sacked in either of New England’s two playoff wins, with defenses getting only three quarterback hits while chasing an offense that is part of a team averaging 27.3 points, ranked fourth in the NFL.

It hasn’t gone unnoticed by the Patriots’ 41-year-old quarterback.

In the days after their AFC championship game victory over Kansas City, Brady posted a picture on Instagram of his spotless jersey. He tagged each of his offensive linemen in the post, writing, “Not even 1 grass stain!”

The last time Brady wasn’t sacked through two playoff games was the 2003 season, when he wasn’t sacked at all during the Patriots’ three wins, including their Super Bowl victory over Carolina.

“I think they’ve performed incredible all year really,” Brady said. “We really haven’t had many sacks this year, and I think they’ve done such a great job protecting, and the run game, I think that speaks for itself. That was just an incredible effort last week, and we’re going to need it again because this group is obviously exceptional at (the defensive line).

“The D-line is certainly a great strength of theirs. We’ll be challenged. All those guys will be challenged.”

The 37-year-old Whitworth is the cornerstone of the Rams’ offensive turnaround, providing brilliant blocking and steady leadership since he left Cincinnati to join McVay on the West Coast two years ago. He has started every game except one in the past two seasons. So have left guard Rodger Saffold, center John Sullivan and right tackle Rob Havenstein.

The Rams’ continuity on the line is remarkable in the modern NFL. Their only change from last season to this season was made at right guard, where Austin Blythe replaced the suspended Jamon Brown for the first two games of this season and played so well he never relinquished the spot.

The Rams’ offensive line is a reliable barometer for the success of their powerful offense. When the linemen are playing well, as they did through the first 10 weeks of the season, quarterback Jared Goff operates smoothly behind his protection and Todd Gurley finds gaping holes in their opponents’ defensive fronts.

When the line struggles, as it appeared to do at Detroit and Chicago in December, the offense stalls. Goff was pressured 51 times in a four-game stretch late in the regular season after getting pressured just 78 times in the first 10 games, directly leading to the Rams’ losses to the Bears and the Philadelphia Eagles.

“Everybody knows how much I love those guys,” Gurley said. “They’re responsible for everything. We’ve got the best line in the game, in my opinion, and they show it on the field every week.”

New England lost two starters on its offensive line in the offseason when tackles Nate Solder and Cam Fleming left in free agency. But with Marcus Cannon and Trent Brown taking their spots, joining center David Andrews and guards Shaq Mason and Joe Thuney, Brady was sacked 21 times during the regular season, compared with 35 times last season.

New England knows it will take a similar effort against a Rams’ defensive line that also features All-Pro Aaron Donald, Dante Fowler and Ndamukong Suh.

Andrews said one of the things they are so good at is changing up things, with Suh sometimes playing nose guard, and lining up on the edge other times.

“Obviously, they’re both dynamic players,” Andrews said. “Aaron Donald is the best defensive football player in the league, there’s no doubt about that. So it’s going to be a big challenge. We’re going to have to do a lot of things well.”