PHILADELPHIA -- For much of the week, the focus of Sunday's Patriots-Eagles matchup has centered on which quarterback Philadelphia would start and the difficulty New England experienced in prepping for multiple signal-callers.
Now we know it's almost certain that backup Vince Young will start in place of Michael Vick. But all the focus on the Philadelphia quarterback situation might have masked a more important storyline: New England's ability to protect its own quarterback.
Keeping Tom Brady's jersey clean might be the most important task for the Patriots when they visit Lincoln Financial Field at 4:15 p.m. Sunday.
Sure, the Eagles have a glitzy secondary, headlined by big-ticket corners Nnamdi Asomugha and Asante Samuel. But, with the Eagles ailing there, too, the key to New England's success through the air might boil down to allowing Brady the necessary time to distribute the ball. His available targets will be something to watch considering Chad Ochocinco (hamstring) is out and three others -- Deion Branch (hip), Taylor Price (hamstring), and Matthew Slater (shoulder) -- were limited this week.
Keeping Brady upright is something the Patriots have struggled with at times in recent weeks. After allowing a mere four sacks in the first four weeks of the season, the Patriots have surrendered 15 sacks in their past six games.
It's no secret that teams that have pressured Brady have given themselves the best chance at success against New England. And the Eagles, with a deep defensive line rotation, seem to have the personnel to do just that.
Philadelphia entered Week 12 tied for fourth in the NFL with 29 sacks this season, highlighted by 10 from defensive end Jason Babin (fourth-most in the league). What's more, the Eagles rank third in the league in sacks per opponent pass attempt, putting the opposing quarterback on the ground on 8.92 percent of drop-backs. (Only Baltimore and Washington have been better.)
Patriots coach Bill Belichick emphasized the importance of any defensive line this week.
"It all starts up front -- those guys are involved in every play," Belichick said. "There's a lot of plays that some of the people in the secondary or in the perimeter of the defense are less involved in. I'm not saying they're not important -- I'm not saying that. But the corners are not involved in every play, the outside linebackers are not directly involved in every play. But every play you have to handle people in the interior part of the defense -- [defensive linemen and] middle linebackers, guys like that, they're basically a part of every play. The more they can control their area or their responsibility -- it's something that, offensively, you have to deal with those guys on every single play."
New England will have its hands full there. Left tackle Matt Light injured his ankle against the Chiefs and was limited all week, leaving him questionable for Sunday's game. Although Light didn't show a limp while navigating the locker room this week, it will be interesting to watch how he fares given the injury (and whether rookie Nate Solder is forced into action to spell him).
At center, Ryan Wendell has played reps each of the past two weeks as Dan Connolly has battled both a groin injury (limited all week, questionable for Sunday) and some up-and-down play. Brady, while stressing the importance of the center-quarterback exchange, said he's performed enough snaps over the years with Connolly and Wendell that interchanging them isn't much of an issue.
But Brady did admit there's something to be said about continuity in front of him.
"It's important -- camaraderie on the offensive line," Brady said. "Those guys, the communication between that group is very important. We've had that for a number of years. The guys that have been in there have played with each other and, fortunately, a lot of our backups have been in there too -- like Ryan Wendell stepping in [for Connolly], Nate Solder has done a good job as a young player, [rookie] Marcus [Cannon] had his first little bit of experience out there [versus Kansas City]. All those reps are very important. They're coached very well and there are very high expectations for those guys, and they always live up to the challenge."
The Patriots can aid their cause with a rare strong start. New England has limped out of the gates in 2011, scoring a mere 51 points in the first quarter this season. (By comparison, they've scored 77 in the second, 68 in the third and 97 in the fourth.) On the flip side, New England's defense has allowed a mere 30 points in the first quarter of games this season (plus-21 differential), yet New England simply hasn't given itself the luxury of playing with a lead very often. Even last week in a 34-3 thrashing of the Chiefs, the Patriots trailed early.
"We can execute a lot better than we've been executing; there's no question about that," Brady said. "I think that's what we're trying to do. It doesn't matter if you win, you're always trying to make improvements and we're trying to make improvements and we'll continue to make improvements up until the last day of the season, whenever that is. We go out to practice today, we're going to try to get better and I think we can get better."
The dinged-up Eagles still have enough depth to put points on the board, especially with the Patriots dealing with their own health issues, particularly at linebacker and in the secondary. Young keyed an impressive fourth-quarter drive last Sunday in a must-win game against the rival Giants.
The Eagles registered five quarterback sacks, four quarterback hits and a ridiculous 25 quarterback pressures in that game, according to analytical site Pro Football Focus. Put another way, the Chiefs sacked Brady three times but generated only eight quarterback pressures in that game.
The Eagles will apply pressure Sunday. The key to success for the Patriots will be finding a way to limit the damage they create from it.
Chris Forsberg covers the Patriots for ESPNBoston.com.