PIT-NE grades: Tom Brady earns top mark in AFC Championship win

Highest-graded players and top takeaways from the Patriots' AFC Championship win over the Steelers.

| 4 months ago
Tom Brady

(Jim Rogash/Getty Images)

PIT-NE grades: Tom Brady earns top mark in AFC Championship win

New England Patriots 36, Pittsburgh Steelers 17

Here are the top-graded players and biggest storylines from New England’s AFC Championship win over Pittsburgh.

New England Patriots

Quarterback grade: Tom Brady, 88.8

Brady firing on all cylinders

This game put vintage Tom Brady football on display. The Patriots quarterback was accurate on 36 of his 39 targeted passes, as the offense performed like a well-oiled machine. Brady was also 3-of-3 on passes targeted 20-plus yards downfield for 74 yards and two touchdowns. On the nine dropbacks the Patriots ran play action, Brady was 8-of-9 for 135 yards and a touchdown. All the way down the line, the QB’s statistics were stellar for the game.

Tom Brady vs. pressure

Top offensive grades:

QB Tom Brady, 88.8

RT Marcus Cannon, 85.2

LT Nate Solder, 85.2

C David Andrews, 82.0

RG Shaq Mason, 80.5

New England nearly flawless in pass protection

While the Pats were helped to a degree by the amount of three-man rushes from the Steelers, they still held up to allow only three total pressures on their 44 designed pass plays on Sunday. The right side of the offensive line was its usual dominant self, again allowing zero combined pressures between right guard Shaq Mason and right tackle Marcus Cannon. With that sort of time, the offense was nearly unstoppable, as Tom Brady recorded a 150.0 passer rating on throws taking 2.6 seconds or longer.

Top defensive grades:

LB Kyle Van Noy, 81.0

CB Logan Ryan, 77.3

LB Don’t’a Hightower, 77.0

CB Malcolm Butler, 75.2

DT Alan Branch, 75.1

Patriots’ defense slows down Antonio Brown

It was clear that New England’s pass-defense game plan was to limit Antonio Brown as best they could and force other receivers to beat them instead. They executed that plan pretty well. Prior to the final Pittsburgh drive, the Patriots held Brown to six catches for 66 yards and no scores. It was also the first time Brown was held without a reception of 20 or more yards since Week 6. The other Pittsburgh receivers didn’t step up to the challenge, and even when the Patriots’ coverage was beaten, the Steelers bailed them out with dropped passes or the occasional inaccurate throw. New England will need to improve its pass rush before facing Atlanta in the Super Bowl, though. The defense combined for seven hurries and just one hit on Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger, and no defender recorded multiple pressures.

Pittsburgh Steelers

Quarterback grade: Ben Roethlisberger, 79.7

Big Ben unable do it on his own

Ben Roethlisberger had a few off-target throws and an interception, but he also didn’t get the most help from his receiving corps. Roethlisberger was just 2-of-9 on deep pass attempts targeted 20-plus yards downfield, but he actually had a handful of impressive passes. Unfortunately, on the four occasions he was accurate when throwing deep, his receivers failed to haul in the catch. The Steelers finished the game with five total drops on the night.

Ben Roethlisberger vs. pressure

Top Offensive grades:

LT Alejandro Villanueva, 80.8

LG Ramon Foster, 79.9

QB Ben Roethlisberger, 79.7

RG David DeCastro, 77.6

WR Antonio Brown, 73.0

Steelers unable to replace Bell

Even before Le’Veon Bell left the game with an injury, the Steelers were not very effective running the ball. Bell averaged just 3.3 yards per rush on his six carries. As good as the offensive line was in pass protection, the Patriots’ defensive front controlled the line of scrimmage versus the run for most of the game. DeAngelo Williams was able to rattle off a 15-yard run at one point, but his other 13 carries went for just 19 total yards. Williams did record seven catches for 51 yards, but overall, he’s just not a player of the same caliber as Bell, and couldn’t replace his production.

Top defensive grades:

LB Lawrence Timmons, 80.3

DT Javon Hargrave, 78.5

OLB James Harrison, 76.1

CB Ross Cockrell, 73.7

S Mike Mitchell, 52.1

Gaping holes in coverage

Even dropping eight into coverage for much of the game, the Steelers’ defense couldn’t help but let New England’s receivers run unabated through their zones. Every single player targeted on Pittsburgh’s defense allowed a completion percentage of at least 66.7 percent. The discipline from their safeties was especially troubling. Robert Golden got lost on the Patriots’ first touchdown of the game, as he followed Tom Brady’s eyes away from WR Chris Hogan. Later in the first half, Mike Mitchell completely abandoned his middle-of-the-field responsibility on a flea flicker, allowing for an easy score.

PFF Game-Ball Winner: Patriots QB Tom Brady

PFF’s player grading process includes multiple reviews, which may change the grade initially published in order to increase its accuracy. Learn more about how we grade and access grades for every player by subscribing to Player Grades.

| Analyst

Matt has been an analyst for PFF since 2013. He is also a contributor to 120 Sports and a former NCAA Division-III football player.

  • Nicardo Neil

    I’d love to hear what the “but they haven’t played a good QB/Team all year” crowd has to say today. I’m sure there will be some crap about Bell being injured (even tho he wasnt doin much b4 the injury). Or maybe they’ll say the Steelers really weren’t that good anyway. C’mon guys, surprise me!!

    • Robert Anasi

      Hell, even FO was saying they hadn’t beaten anyone good and the fact is, they hadn’t – well, Tannehill is acceptable and shredded them late. Of course, they’d lost to the best quarterback they faced – Wilson. I do think that the mid-season shakeup on D took a while to kick in but that now this D, at least with this O, is more than enough to handle Atlanta.

      • Paul

        Matt Moore for the Dolphins. Alex Smith for the Chiefs. These aren’t exactly tough competition. Ben Roethlisberger benefits greatly from going against mediocre QBs, if and when he actually plays.

      • Nicardo Neil

        There you go. Knew I could count on someone. It is so predictable that you bring up the one game the defense had a bad day. Lets talk a bit about the bad days that other top defences had this year shall we: the top ranked Texans struggled to contain JACOBY BRISSETT, Trevor Simian and Sam Freakin Bradford to the tune of 27, 27 and 31 points respectively. The Cardinals gave up 33 to Tyrod Tailor and the Bills and 30+ points to the Vikings and Panthers not to mention 48(!!!) to the Saints (I dont care that its Brees a “great” defence giving up almost 50 is bad). Denver allowed Alex Smith to put 30 on em twice. Seattle also let in 30 twice. So ALL of those defences that get more respect than NE had multiple bad days against usually pathetic QBs/teams. But the Pats get no respect cuz they “played no one”. Please, gimme a break!!

  • AJ

    Pressuring Brady on 6 of 44 drop backs is never going to be enough to beat them. Brady seemed to have no trouble at any point in this game throwing the ball. Maybe it’s just me, but I feel that this year has seen a lot more good o-line play than in recent seasons. All 4 of teams from this weekend had strong overall o-lines this season (this season, not necessarily this weekend). Hogan has really helped compensate for Gronk’s big-play ability.

    For the Steelers, looking ahead the offseason, they need to strengthen the secondary with guys that can cover and tackle these receivers. They also need to get more creative with their blitzes (which just happened to be Dick LeBeau’s strength when he was there). Many plays had 2 or 3 guys rushing at or near the same gap on the same side of the line while the other side of the line had nobody. Getting Cameron Heyward back next year will help some, but edge guys need to step up. James Harrison won’t be around forever. The talent level on defense simply lacks compared to the 2000s.

    Overall, a successful year for PIT, but they are clearly not ready to compete with NE, and they won’t be until they fix these issues (as well as secondary receivers on offense).

  • crosseyedlemon

    Steelers needed a strong run game to have any chance in this game and the Patriots denied them that.

    • Dan

      No, they just needed WRs other than Antonio Brown to make some plays and not screw up. I saw two dropped TD passes, and a third TD pass wiped out by an illegal touching penalty. All this after WR miscues took two TDs off the board against the Chiefs to boot.

  • Paul

    Strange excuses for Ben. Don’t see PFF writers excusing drops for other QBs. He didn’t play well enough and always needs a defense and supporting cast to do well. If he isn’t injured that is.

    • Dan

      Facts are not excuses.

      • crosseyedlemon

        Until they become “alternative facts”.