High stakes mean high ratings in New York Life Protection Index

NORTHBROOK, Ill. (STATS) - Never before had so many teams received such strong pass protection this season.

Then again, never before was so much on the line.

With playoff hopes and seeding at stake, offensive lines stepped up their game Sunday. Six teams in Week 17 graded out over 100 in the New York Life Protection Index, the most in a single week all year. By contrast, through the season's first 16 weeks, the century mark was reached all of 20 times.

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.

Of last weekend's top six performers in the NYLPI, five were fighting for a playoff berth or looking to improve their seeding.

"During training camp this is all you can hope for - an opportunity to play in the postseason," said Matt Ryan, quarterback of the playoff-bound Falcons. "I'm excited about that and ready to roll."

Atlanta's O-line appears ready for the postseason as well.

The Falcons entered Week 17 having already clinched a wild-card berth, but still had a chance to swap positions with Detroit and take the fifth seed with a win over Tampa Bay coupled with a Lions loss at Green Bay. Detroit lost to the Packers 45-41 in an early game Sunday, and Atlanta wasted little time dismantling the Buccaneers in a late afternoon game, jumping out to a 42-0 second-quarter lead en route to a 45-24 victory.

The Falcons' line did a stellar job of protecting Ryan and backup QB Chris Redman, as neither were sacked or hurried on 21 passing plays. The line went without a false start or holding penalty and finished with a 104.4 in the NYLPI, fourth-best of the week.

Atlanta, which will visit the NFC East-champion New York Giants on Sunday, has reached 100 in the NYLPI each of the last two weeks after cracking triple digits once in its first 15 games.

"We've continued to get better as the season progressed," Ryan said. "You want to be playing your best football at this time of year, and I think we're starting to head into that direction."

Although the Lions dropped to the sixth seed with Sunday's loss, Detroit's offensive line won't take much of the blame.

The Lions graded out with a 108.1 in the NYLPI, third-best of the week. Matthew Stafford was sacked twice and hurried twice, but set a Detroit single-game record with 520 passing yards - 332 of which came through the air. He finished the regular season with 5,038 yards, fifth-best in NFL history.

Detroit's loss set the stage for a wild-card game Saturday night with the man who owns that yardage record - New Orleans' Drew Brees. The Saints and Brees defeated the Lions 31-17 at the Superdome on Dec. 4.

NFC South-champion New Orleans entered Week 17 with a chance to secure a first-round bye with a win over Carolina coupled with a San Francisco loss to St. Louis, but the 49ers prevailed 34-27. The Saints easily beat the Panthers 45-17, as New Orleans' line once again gave Brees plenty of time to pick apart the secondary.

Brees completed 28 of 35 passes for 389 yards with five touchdowns and one interception, increasing his single-season passing yardage record to 5,476. He wasn't sacked or knocked down and was hurried just twice as the Saints' line graded out at 109.7, second-best of the week.

New Orleans, which set single-season NFL records with 7,474 total yards and 5,347 net yards passing, finished the year with a league-best 88.0 in the NYLPI. While Brees garners most of the attention and was chosen to a fourth straight Pro Bowl, left tackle Jermon Bushrod and offensive guards Jahri Evans and Carl Nicks were also selected to this year's version of the NFL's All-Star game.

"I am not real familiar with the numbers," coach Sean Payton said of the offensive records. "A lot of guys played a lot of parts. You start with the offensive line and their representation going into the Pro Bowl."

The offensive line has allowed Brees to be sacked just once in the last three weeks, and five times in the last eight games.

"The offense is clicking," Saints tackle Zach Strief said. "We ran the ball really well. The play action is working and it is really messing with the pass rushes. That's been the case the last few weeks."

Cincinnati's offensive line put together its best rating of the season in Week 17 and ended up clinching a playoff berth, although it came in a loss. The Bengals graded out with a 100.1, sixth-best of the weekend, in Sunday's 24-16 loss to AFC North-champion Baltimore. The line didn't commit a false start or holding penalty, while allowing a sack, two hurries and two knockdowns of rookie quarterback Andy Dalton.

Despite the loss, Cincinnati is moving on to face AFC South-champion Houston on Saturday, thanks to collapses by the teams around them in the playoff chase - Denver, Oakland and the New York Jets.

The Broncos' defeat opened the door for Oakland, which needed a win over San Diego to secure its first AFC West crown since 2002. The Raiders' line did its part, grading out with a Sunday-best of 111.1 - the second-best of the season from all 256 games. They didn't allow a sack and only one QB knock down as Carson Palmer threw for a season-high 417 yards, but Oakland lost 38-26, dashing its postseason hopes.

The Chargers ended up with the league's fifth-best NYLPI in Week 17 at 101.5, the lone team to grade out in triple digits in Week 17 not in the playoff picture.

Denver clinched the AFC West and will host Pittsburgh on Sunday despite a 7-3 loss to Kansas City and another poor grade by the offensive line. The Broncos finished with a 31.0 in the NYLPI, as Tim Tebow was sacked twice and knocked down four times.

Tebow gets hit a lot as a product of Denver's option-style offense, which penalizes the offensive line's grade in the NYLPI. It also doesn't help that completing passes is not one of Tebow's strengths. He misfired on 16 of 22 attempts, throwing for 60 yards with an interception.

Making matters worse for the Broncos was the fact that starting right guard Chris Kuper broke his left leg Sunday and was placed on injured reserve.

"He's a real big loss," rookie right tackle Orlando Franklin said. "He definitely was the bus driver on my side. He was making all the calls."

The Broncos, who fortified their line Monday by signing tackle Ryan Harris, finished the season with the league's second-worst NYLPI at 43.5, barely edging out Chicago's 43.2.

The Bears rounded out the Week 17 NYLPI with a season-worst minus-21.2, fourth-worst of the year. Backup Josh McCown was sacked seven times Sunday against Minnesota while throwing for 160 yards with a touchdown and interception, but Chicago still won 17-13.

Once a promising-looking playoff team, the Bears graded out at less than 8.5 in the NYLPI in four of the six weeks Jay Cuter missed with a broken thumb.

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