NORTHBROOK, Ill. (STATS) - Tom Brady's experience makes it easier for the New England Patriots to overcome injuries on their offensive line and still put up big numbers.
With only two starts under center, Caleb Hanie hasn't demonstrated the skills that could help the Chicago Bears' woeful line cover up its weaknesses.
Week 13 proved to be a tale of two quarterbacks in the New York Life Protection Index as the Patriots graded out a league-best 98.0 after defeating winless Indianapolis 31-24, while the battered Bears pulled up the rear with a minus-2.7 in their 10-3 loss to Kansas City.
The NYLPI is a proprietary formula created by STATS LLC which measures pass protection by using metrics such as length of passes, penalties by offensive linemen, sacks allowed and quarterback hurries and knockdowns.
New England has been shuffling players on its offensive line since its opener, when it lost center Dan Koppen to a season-ending ankle injury. His replacement, Dan Connolly, has missed the last two games with a bad groin, forcing Nick McDonald to make his first NFL start Sunday. Right tackle Sebastian Vollmer and center Ryan Wendell were also out.
The lack of continuity has done little to slow down Brady, who continued his December dominance by throwing for 289 yards and two touchdowns against the Colts to improve to 34-5 in his career during the month.
It certainly helped that despite the line being shorthanded, Brady stayed upright. He was sacked once and only knocked down twice. Coach Bill Belichick said it shows how deep the Patriots talent is.
"We always give everybody an opportunity to compete," said Belichick, who added that he was pleased with McDonald's first start. "The guys that do the best get more opportunities."
New England has graded out 90.0 or better in the NYLPI in three of the last five weeks and moved up to second in the league for the season at 77.8, trailing only New Orleans at 86.5.
Perhaps facing its decade-long archrival helped Indianapolis up its own game as well. The Colts tried to rally against New England before ultimately coming up short again. Still, they posted a 78.7 mark with Dan Orlovsky under center - their best since Week 6.
While he was sacked twice and knocked down five times, Orlovsky still managed to get comfortable enough to pass for 353 yards - a season-high 242 of which were in the air.
"They kept me clean and gave me time to try and do what I could do," Orlovsky said.
The Patriots took advantage of what had been a punchless opponent, but facing a struggling team provided no relief for the Bears.
Headlined by the strong play of Jay Cutler, the Bears' much-maligned offensive line had been looking better over the last month. In Cutler's final game before announcing a possible season-ending thumb injury, Chicago had its best NYLPI performance of the season with a 94.5 in Week 11 against San Diego.
However, with the inexperienced Hanie under center, Chicago hasn't been able to mask some of the issues that Cutler was able to help the team overcome. In the loss to the Chiefs, Hanie was sacked seven times and knocked down eight more as the Bears finished with a season-low 181 yards of offense - 133 passing.
The news got even worse for Chicago's playoff hopes after running back Matt Forte suffered a sprained MCL, which is expected to keep him sidelined for a few games.
With Forte and Cutler out, the Bears front five recognizes it carries a heavy burden to make it easier on Hanie and the rest of the offense. Chicago is one of three teams in the hunt for the two wild card spots with a 7-5 record.
"We have to keep going," center Roberto Garza said. "We have to find a way to win the football game. ... We have to play better up front on the offensive line, protect our quarterback and get a successful running game going."
While the Bears' offensive line struggles could hurt their chances of making the postseason, it didn't for the 49ers, who were one of two teams to clinch a playoff spot last weekend after securing the NFC West.
San Francisco defeated St. Louis 26-0 on Sunday to earn its first playoff berth in nine years. However, the result was in spite of the offensive line's pass protection, which saw Alex Smith sacked four times and knocked down five while being called for a false start and two holding penalties. San Francisco graded out at 25.8 in the NYLPI - 27th in the NFL.
That's nothing new for Smith and the 49ers, however. Powered by a strong defense and running game, they rank 30th this season at 45.3 and were coming off a season-worst minus-52.7 mark in Week 12. In fact, the four NFC West teams - San Francisco, St. Louis, Seattle and Arizona - ranked 28th through 31st in the NYLPI last week respectively, ahead of only the Bears.
The Green Bay Packers and New York Giants had no such problems in a game that saw the difference in their protection indices end up as close as their final score in a good old-fashioned Sunday shootout.
The Packers clinched the NFC North after defeating the New York Giants 38-35 to stay undefeated. Green Bay finished just ahead of New York in the NYLPI, with the teams grading out at 85.1 and 83.3, respectively. Both quarterbacks went to the air often, combining for 716 yards passing, the difference being a Mason Crosby 31-yard field goal as time expired.
Aaron Rodgers did face pressure during the game from a formidable Giants pass rush - he was sacked twice, hurried five times and knocked down on six occasions in finishing with a season-worst 106.2 passer rating - but his offensive line stepped up when he needed it most. Rodgers completed four straight passes for 68 yards with less than a minute remaining on the game-winning drive.
Coming off a season-high performance the week before (90.6), the Giants had another solid effort despite the loss of two players before the team even took the field.
On Saturday, backup tackle Stacy Andrews was hospitalized with pulmonary embolisms in his lungs, which will end his season. New York was already without starting left tackle Will Beatty, who was lost for the year following eye surgery.
Meanwhile, center David Baas was a late scratch because of headaches and was scheduled to undergo tests this week.
"You can't start crying or complaining," said Eli Manning, who threw for 347 yards and three touchdowns. "We've got to mid-stream adjust."
While Manning was only sacked once, he was knocked down six times and the line was charged with two false starts. However, the pressure didn't stop him from throwing the ball downfield. Of his passing yards, 215 were in the air - the team's second-most of the season.