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Tuesday, January 31, 2012
Updated: February 2, 4:24 PM ET
Can Patriots protect Tom Brady?

By Jeremy Lundblad
ESPNBoston.com

Tom Brady has gone 126 consecutive regular-season games without being sacked five times. Yet it's happened twice in the postseason over the past five years. Both games, including Super Bowl XLII against the New York Giants, ended in losses.

In all, Brady has been sacked 13 times in the New England Patriots' past three playoff losses.

Clearly, protecting Brady is central to the Patriots' postseason success. That could prove challenging against the Giants, who finished with 48 sacks in 2011. Only the Minnesota Vikings and Philadelphia Eagles (both with 50) had more.

So what do the numbers tell us about Sunday's matchup?

Getting to Brady With Four Pass-Rushers

Brady excels when opponents send extra pass-rushers at the expense of coverage. In 2011, he has 17 touchdowns and two interceptions when five or more pass-rushers are after him. When four or fewer are sent, he has 22 touchdowns and 10 interceptions.

Having more defenders back in coverage is crucial against the Patriots given all of their weapons. But it can come at the expense of pressure on the quarterback. That hasn't been the case for the Giants, who had 34 sacks in the regular season when sending four or fewer pass-rushers. They've added six more in the postseason.

The Giants have used four or fewer pass-rushers on more than 82 percent of their opponents' dropbacks this postseason, compared to less than 70 percent in the regular season.

Jason Pierre-Paul provides the biggest threat in those circumstances. Of his 16.5 sacks, 11.5 came with four or fewer pass-rushers. Having played more snaps than any other defensive lineman in the NFL, he's a constant threat for the Patriots' offensive line.

All Eyes on Light

Sunday should prove to be a busy day for the left side of the Patriots' offensive line: Matt Light and Logan Mankins.

Of the Giants' 57 sacks (includes postseason), 25 have come from players lining up at right end. That's 8.5 more sacks than the Patriots had from that spot. Both Osi Umenyiora and Pierre-Paul did the bulk of their damage from that side. Another nine sacks have come from tackles or linebackers lining up in the right side.

The good news for New England? At left tackle, Light has had his best pass-protecting season in years. According to Pro Football Focus, Light was responsible for only four sacks all season.

New England's Offensive Line Advantage

Apart from tight end, pass protection may be the area where the Patriots hold the biggest advantage over the Giants.

Even after losing starting center Dan Koppen at the beginning of the season, the Patriots excelled in pass protection. As a group, the Patriots' offensive line allowed 142 pressures, eighth fewest in the NFL. The Giants allowed 220 pressures, 15 more than any other team.

Along with the always steady Mankins, Brian Waters fortified the guard position for New England. An offseason addition, he was New England's best offensive lineman against the pass, allowing only two sacks, according to Pro Football Focus.

Rookie Nate Solder has stepped in at right tackle in place of the oft-injured Sebastian Vollmer, who hasn't played since Week 12 but is expected to be ready Sunday.

Though likely more of a reflection of the opponents, it's interesting to note how Brady has fared based on his right tackle. With Solder there, Brady has 25 touchdowns and 13 interceptions. With Vollmer at right tackle, Brady has 11 touchdowns and two interceptions.

Jeremy Lundblad is a senior researcher with ESPN Stats & Information. He provides statistical analysis for ESPNBoston.com.