Patriots' O-line has battled all season

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- The Patriots as a team operate with a "next-man up" philosophy, but the offensive line took that to new extremes this season.

Ten different offensive linemen played at least 100 snaps for the Patriots this year, and that doesn't include starting center Dan Koppen, who went down in the first half of a season-opening win in Miami and set into motion this crazy game of lineman musical chairs.

From rookie Nate Solder starting 13 games to practice squad lineman Nick McDonald making a spot start in Week 13 to Dan Connolly bouncing to what seemed like 13 different spots on the line, the Patriots found a way to cobble things together.

Most impressively, they did it while never compromising the play up front.

The Patriots' offensive line will be as healthy as it's been all season when the team opens the playoffs Saturday night by hosting the Denver Broncos in an AFC divisional round battle at Gillette Stadium.

Both guard Logan Mankins and tackle Sebastian Vollmer returned to practice this week, giving New England a full complement of big bodies to protect quarterback Tom Brady. And we need only consider the Patriots' recent playoff losses to remember just how important it is for the team to keep Brady upright early in the new calendar year.

"No matter who's out there come [Saturday night], I'm [comfortable] that we're going to have a group that's ready to play," guard Brian Waters said. "That's something we've learned through the course of this season that, everybody who's been asked to step up and play, they've played and been prepared. Whatever happens, whoever's out there, it's going to be a case where I know that those five guys, six guys -- or however many we play -- are going to be prepared and ready to go."

After all, Waters was ready to go when his No. 54 -- fresh off the rack after he was signed just eight days before the start of the regular season -- was called in the season-opener in Miami. The plan was originally to rotate him with Connolly while easing him in after missing all of training camp.

Then Koppen went down, Connolly shuffled to center and Waters rarely left the field the next four months.

In fact, according to snaps logged by analytical site Pro Football Focus, Waters finished second on the team in offensive snaps played (1,139) behind only Tom Brady (1,149).

Matt Light (1,059 snaps) and Logan Mankins (1,015) logged hefty snap counts as well, but even they battled injuries late in the season. During a Week 16 game against Miami, Light woke up unable to go and Mankins got hurt playing in his place on the game's second drive.

Brady soon found himself with a makeshift line featuring (from left to right) Solder, Donald Thomas, Connolly, Waters and Marcus Cannon. Imagine the odds Vegas would have produced on that potential combination before the season.

Thomas, who didn't play an NFL snap in 2010, and had been on three teams since being a sixth-round pick of the Dolphins in 2008, was an in-season addition who got cut at one point to offer game-day roster flexibility. Cannon spent the first 10 weeks of his rookie season on the non-football injury list while working his way back after being in remission from non-Hodgkin's lymphoma.

Along the way, Ryan Wendell made three starts and played a key role despite his own injury woes, and even Thomas Welch made an early-season cameo off the practice squad (albeit strictly as a third tight end).

"It speaks a lot to guys we have and, obviously, the job that [offensive line coach] Dante [Scarnecchia] does," Light said. "Any chance [players] have to get out there and prove it during the regular season, I think that will help us during the postseason. You want to have a little bit of confidence, going into those situations where you have guys that do go down.

"The younger guys have stepped up all season and made big plays, shuffling from one position to another for us, from one side of the line to the other. That's not an easy thing to do. But you know what? They get it done in practice, they get it done when they go out there and, for whatever reason, it's worked out really well for us."

According to PFF stats, Patriots linemen were responsible for only 20 sacks (tied for 11th best in the league this season) and 94 hurries (ninth best). Using PFF's pass blocking efficiency metric (a weighted formula factoring in sacks, hits and hurries versus total number of drop backs) the Patriots graded out at 83 percent protection, eighth best in the league (for comparison's sake, the Bills topped the league at 87.8 percent, while the Giants were low at 72.6 percent).

The Patriots take a lot of pride in what they were able to accomplish given all the moving parts. And it doesn't matter who is on the field Saturday, they plan to keep up the high level of play.

"Hey, we've seen guys come from out of nowhere and be productive," Waters said. "I think, as a unit, we're very comfortable with the fact that no matter who plays, we're going to be prepared and ready to go."

Chris Forsberg covers the Patriots for ESPNBoston.com.