It's true that an NFL team will only go as far as its quarterback will take it.
But the quarterback will only go as far as his offensive line will take him.
So, could you say an NFL team will only go as far as its offensive line will take it?
If that's the case, it explains why the Patriots are playing in Super Bowl LI.
We saw what happened last season when a patchwork Patriots offensive was line ripped apart in the AFC Championship Game against the Denver Broncos.
It wasn't a total surprise. That line was marred by injuries all season long, and in the end just didn't have the talent and the right coaching. Last season, the Patriots used 39 different offensive line combinations. Compare that with this season under un-retired offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia, where they've used a total of just nine combinations.
Left tackle Nate Solder, left guard Joe Thuney, center David Andrews, right guard Shaq Mason and right tackle Marcus Cannon started 14 of the Patriots' 16 game, according to NESN.com.
And that group made sure to do everything in their power to protect Tom Brady (as well as Jimmy Garoppolo and Jacoby Brissett). They did a good job too, as the 24 sacks allowed were the fifth fewest in the NFL, and the 148 yards lost on sacks were tied for second fewest.
While the unit as a whole deserves plenty of credit, the play of the tackles this season, Solder and Cannon, have stood out.
Both Solder and Cannon were drafted by the Patriots in 2011, Solder in a first round and Cannon in the fifth, having slipped due to his non-Hodgkin lymphoma diagnosis before the draft.
But believe it or not, the two did not exactly get along right away - by their own admission.
“Well it’s an awesome relationship," Solder said. "The neat thing is we were both up to be drafted the same year and I think there was a little bit of animosity between us and when we ended up on the same team, it quickly became heavy animosity throughout the season. But over the year, that next offseason, we were the two that were hanging out with each other every day. So we’ve become very close friends. I think we both appreciate and respect each other’s abilities and talents. Our families know each other, they spend time together, so it’s really been a blessing.”
Solder and Cannon have more than just job titles in common. They both have been touched by cancer. Cannon underwent treatment for non-Hodgkin lymphoma in 2011, and has been cancer-free since. Solder was diagnosed with testicular cancer in 2014, had surgery to remove it, and went on to play the entire 2014 season. But that is nothing compared to what Solder and his family are faced with now.
Solder's infant son Hudson was diagnosed with Wilms tumors, a rare kidney cancer that affects children, at three months old. Now 18 months old, Hudson continues his battle with cancer with his parents and their strong faith by his side.
They are not alone, though. Solder, who was named the New England Patriots 2016 Ed Block Courage Award winner “for his devotion to helping others and the inspiring strength he shows in tackling obstacles both on and off the field”, has teammates like Cannon (who won the award in 2011) there for support.
“Marcus was one of the first people and one of the most meaningful people that came and talked to us and he said, ‘You know, I understand the nightmare you’re going through but just know that the nightmare does end,’ and he’s seen both sides of that,” Solder told reporters. “That was a huge impact on our lives and we had a huge connection on the field where he says something, ‘Nate, play with all your heart with Christ with you,’ whatever it is, it really, really means a lot to me. I’m so thankful to have him in my life.”
It might seem like a tall task to keep some of the most athletic and physically gifted players in the NFL from the Patriots’ prized possession in the pocket. It certainly won't be easy on Sunday against the Falcons with everything on the line.
But when you see what these two tackles – and friends – have already gone up against off the field, it’s no wonder why they’re able to handle this.