The motto when facing Tom Brady in the playoffs has long been the same: pressure Brady and he'll melt down.
But is it really possible?
Despite losing left tackle Nate Solder to the Giants in free agency, the Patriots' line hasn't missed a beat. New England ranks eighth in the NFL in pass protection, according to Pro Football Focus. They're even better against edge rushes, ranking first in the NFL by allowing a pressure from an edge rusher on just 9.6 percent of dropbacks.
New England meets a Los Angeles Chargers team that boasts a formidable edge rushing duo in Melvin Ingram and Joey Bosa. Ingram recorded two sacks and four pressures on 51 snaps against Baltimore in the wild-card meeting, and Bosa has 6.5 sacks since returning to the starting lineup in Week 12, tied for most in the league in that span of time.
Let's go Behind the O Line to explore New England's ability to protect Brady.
New England trots out a starting line of left tackle Trent Brown, left guard Joe Thuney, center David Andrews, right guard Shaq Mason and right tackle Marcus Cannon. As a group, they're firm and reliable. They don't chase stunts, they only allow pressure up the middle when they have to rely on a running back to help, and they're almost never overwhelmed by an opponent.
Brown is reliable and makes clear why New England was OK with letting Solder walk. The tackle drops to protect well, doesn't lunge, receives rushes and stays firm in most situations. He's only occasionally knocked back, and most times recovers to keep a rusher from getting to Brady.
If there's a weakness among the two tackles, it's Cannon in one-on-one situations against a mix of bull rushes and speed rushes around the edge. Cannon maintains a firm base but did give up ground to Watt and Clowney on a semi-frequent basis in Week 1. He was also beaten around the edge by Watt and Clowney, though the impact was minimal.
LaAdrian Waddle is less reliable in these situations, but he isn't one of the starting five, as he spells Cannon in specific situations.
New England attempted to counter this issue by deploying a variety of teammates as assistants in blocking. Sometimes it was tight end Rob Gronkowski, and other times, it was Dwayne Allen. The Patriots even lined up fullback James Develin in a wingback position to either block Watt or Clowney, or chip him before moving out into the flats as a receiver. Something similar should be expected against Bosa.
Compared to other tackles in the league, though, Brown and Cannon are solid. Brown is stout against bull rushes in most scenarios and does a good job of chasing speed rushers up field and out of the play. When knocked back initially, he does a good job of recovering and resetting. And as a group, New England does a good job of passing off stunts while also keeping the edges protected, rarely chasing twisting and slanting defenders.
There's also the element of Brady moving within the pocket and delivering timely passes just before he was hit. This didn't always work, of course, but being the seasoned veteran he is, Brady made the best out of unfortunate situations by firing passes into the flats as he was being hit.
New England mixed depths of passes well against Houston, alternating between deep shots down the seam and quick passes on slants and into the flats. In these instances, Brown often cut down his matchup, removing the edge rusher's hands (and his potential to bat passes) from the equation. The Patriots also sprinkled in screens to keep defenses honest and found more success with these against Chicago than they did versus Houston.
Their biggest weakness isn't actually a weakness. New England is just as reliable up front as it is on the edges, but as is the case with any quarterback, pressure from the middle did throw Brady off. More often than not, though, the Patriots excel by squeezing stunts together into one mass of man, clogging the middle and preventing defenders from getting to Brady.
With all of this mixed together, it's easy to see how New England is a top-eight pass protecting unit. Thuney leads the way, according to PFF, with a pass protection grade of 87.2, eighth best in the NFL. Andrews and Mason are each within the top 52 of all linemen. Surprisingly, Brown ranks 134th overall, though his tape against premier edge rushers speaks differently. As a whole, this is a solid group that's well equipped to handle the Chargers' rush. As for the execution of the rest of New England's offense, that remains to be seen.