Broncos line steps up to give Tebow chances in NY Life Protection Index

NORTHBROOK, Ill. (STATS) - The Denver Broncos are hoping they saw a glimpse of how great Tim Tebow can be when they keep him upright.

The New Orleans Saints are well aware of how great Drew Brees is, and his protection proved to be just as good in the playoffs as it was during his record-setting regular season.

The Broncos and Saints were two of the top performers in the New York Life Protection Index over wild-card weekend, and that's a major reason they're both marching on to the divisional round.

The Detroit Lions, who ranked first for the week after playing catch-up from a second-half offensive explosion by New Orleans, weren't as lucky.

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.

Denver's front-five graded out at 92.8 in the index, and was key in keeping Pittsburgh's defensive line at bay Sunday. The performance was highlighted by Tebow hitting Demaryius Thomas on a crossing pattern that turned into an 80-yard touchdown on the first play of overtime to clinch the 29-23 win.

Not only did Tebow and Thomas hook up for the signature play of the postseason thus far, but they were also involved in completions of 58 and 51 yards in a breakout performance for the budding stars. Thomas finished with a personal-best 204 yards - on just four catches.

Of course, it was the offensive line that played a big role in affording the duo that opportunity, turning in its second-best NYLPI rating with Tebow under center and giving him the time needed to find his targets. The game marked a dramatic change from the minus-14.9 Denver compiled in Tebow's first start, an 18-15 overtime win at Miami in Week 7.

For the regular season, the Broncos' line ranked 31st at 43.5, with only Chicago (43.2) finishing worse.

Against Pittsburgh, however, Tebow was not sacked. He was knocked down just twice and hurried four times, taking full advantage of the protection to set a team playoff record with a 125.6 passer rating - against the NFL's top defense, no less. He completed 10 of 21 passes for a career-high 316 yards with two touchdowns.

His average of 31.6 yards per completion was the second-best ever by a QB with at least 10, topped only by Joe Namath's 33.1 for the New York Jets against Baltimore on Sept. 24, 1972.

It all culminated with Tebow's winning toss, which was made possible by a stout effort up front.

"Definitely a special memory. One that will always be very special," said Tebow, who added 50 yards and a touchdown on 10 carries.

Things won't get much easier next week, when Tebow and his front five will be tested Saturday in New England. The Broncos' offensive line finished with a 25.2 NYLPI in a 41-23 home loss to the Patriots in Week 15.

Such performances don't occur for the Saints' line, which entered the playoffs with a regular season-best 88.0 NYLPI. On Saturday night, it again showed why it was the only unit to have a cumulative score above 80 through the first 16 weeks. The front five rated 92.7 in the NYLPI.

While Brees was knocked down six times and sacked twice in the 45-28 win over Detroit, he was mostly able to drop back and fire away, throwing for a playoff record 466 yards and three touchdowns on 33-of-43 passing. New Orleans also broke the postseason mark for total yards with 626, topping a record set 49 years ago.

"We were pulling out all the stops," Brees said. "We play aggressive. We're not going to apologize for that. That gives guys in the huddle a lot of confidence. We're not going to pull the reins back. It's pedal to the metal."

That seemed to be the Saints' offensive philosophy all season, and the offensive line was critical to it: Only one of its 17 performances on the season graded out at an index below 70.

Like Denver, however, the road gets tougher. New Orleans will face one of its biggest challenges of the season Saturday when it faces a San Francisco defense that ranked fourth in the NFL during the regular season, and tied New England for second with 23 interceptions. All with a trip to the NFC Championship game on the line. While the Saints were finishing their 10th game of the season with a NYLPI above 90.0, the Lions enjoyed the best performance of the week at 105.2. Matthew Stafford completed 28 of 43 passes for 380 yards with three touchdowns and two picks in his first playoff game, and was knocked down just four times without getting sacked or hurried.

Despite being eliminated in their first postseason game since 1999, the Lions are encouraged by a 10-win season that was aided by the fourth-best pass protection mark of the year (77.2).

"We're going to be around for a while," kicker Jason Hanson said after completing his 20th season with Detroit.

The Houston Texans would like to do the same, but they'll likely need a better effort up front after beating Cincinnati 31-10 on Saturday. The offensive line's 56.4 rating was better than only Pittsburgh's 55.4 last weekend.

Houston, which finished with a mediocre 59.6 NYLPI in the regular season, allowed T.J. Yates to be knocked down three times, get sacked and hurried twice . Yates didn't acquit himself well either, totaling just 159 yards and one TD while connecting on 11 of 20 passes.

The New York Giants finished the week at 61.9, but were powered by a dominant defensive performance that saw them blank Atlanta. The Falcons lone score was a safety of Eli Manning in a 24-2 loss.

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