Super Bowl LI grades: Brady, Hightower lead Patriots in historic comeback over Falcons

Highest-graded players and top takeaways from the New England Patriots' comeback victory over the Atlanta Falcons.

| 4 months ago
Tom Brady

(Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images)

Super Bowl LI grades: Brady, Hightower lead Patriots in historic comeback over Falcons

New England Patriots 34, Atlanta Falcons 28

Here are the highest-graded players and top takeaways from the Patriots’ comeback win over the Falcons in Super Bowl LI.

New England Patriots

Quarterback grade: Tom Brady, 78.3

Brady hits the high notes when it matters

Tom Brady Super Bowl LI passing chart

When it mattered most, Tom Brady turned it on and led the Patriots back to stand alone as the only quarterback with five Super Bowl rings. For three quarters, though, the Patriots’ seemed to be headed for a third Super Bowl defeat with Brady at the helm, as the Falcons were able to get pressure through and affect the QB, who completed only six passes for 67 yards and a 51.8 passer rating on 20 dropbacks under pressure. However, in the final quarter and overtime, Brady was only pressured four times (three sacks and one hit), and he tore the Falcons’ defense up, cutting down Atlanta’s 25-point deficit and wining the first overtime in Super Bowl history.

Tom Brady vs. pressure in Super Bowl LI

Top offensive grades:

RT Marcus Cannon, 84.9

C David Andrews, 83.1

LG Joe Thuney, 77.4

WR Danny Amendola, 76.3

WR Malcolm Mitchell, 73.4

Offensive line turns the corner, gets to grips with Atlanta’s stunts

The Patriots’ offensive line struggled with the Falcons’ pass rush in the first half; Atlanta ran stunts on 22 of the Patriots’ 32 dropbacks and got pressure on 16 plays. At the end of the game, however, they shored up that protection to give Brady the time he needed. Brady’s weapons came up big as the game went on, as well, with Julian Edelman providing this year’s unfathomable bobbled reception that has seemingly been an annual play since David Tyree’s catch for the Giants in Super Bowl XLII. James White earned the second-highest receiving grade of the game, behind only Julio Jones, snagging 14 catches out of the backfield and sealing the victory with a stellar effort to drive to the goal line when the Falcons seemingly had the outside run contained to force a third down.

Top defensive grades:

S Patrick Chung, 83.6

LB Dont’a Hightower, 81.2

DE Trey Flowers, 72.7

DE Jabaal Sheard, 71.9

NT Alan Branch, 67.6

Patriots’ defense rebounds, resists Atlanta’s roll

The Falcons’ needed one more score for the better part of 20 minutes, and the Patriots’ denied them that as the New England offense engineered one of the great comebacks in football history. Second-year defensive end Trey Flowers racked up three sacks, including a sack to drive Atlanta to the edge of field-goal range inside the final four minutes. Fellow DE Chris Long registered only two snaps in the first half, but racked up five hurries on 13 second-half pass rushes to help spark a New England defense that struggled to control Atlanta on the ground and through the air in the first two quarters. The true spark for the turnaround, though, came from linebacker Dont’a Hightower, with his sack exploiting RB Devonta Freeman’s protection bust to the fullest extent, adding to a hit and a hurry in his highest-graded game since Week 6 of the season—a timely return to some of his best football.

Atlanta Falcons

Quarterback grade: Matt Ryan, 81.8

Strong start, but Ryan and Falcons come up a play short

Matt Ryan Super Bowl LI passing chart

The Atlanta Falcons built what would have been in 50 other Super Bowls an unassailable lead on the strength of Matt Ryan’s passing, hitting not only Julio Jones, but Taylor Gabriel and Austin Hooper, as well, for big gains to establish a 25-point lead on the Patriots. Ryan worked the middle of the field extremely well, going a perfect eight-for-eight between the numbers for 138 yards and a touchdown. However, he was only three-for-seven outside the numbers beyond 10 yards, including the final incompletion in a disastrous sequence of plays that pushed the Falcons out of range for a field goal shot that might have clinched victory. This was a strong showing from Ryan, but he and his fellow Falcons ultimately came up one agonizing play short of a victory they deserved in the first 36 minutes of this game.

Matt Ryan vs. pressure in Super Bowl LI

Top offensive grades:

WR Julio Jones, 90.5

RG Chris Chester, 78.8

WR Taylor Gabriel, 77.1

TE Austin Hooper, 75.8

C Alex Mack, 75.1

Jones and Gabriel put on a show, but key plays turn the tide in New England’s favor

Julio Jones came up with one of the great catches in Super Bowl history, though it ultimately led to nothing as the Falcons hit reverse to end that drive. Taylor Gabriel picked up a pair of catches in excess of 20 yards, but key plays in pass protection were the undoing of the Falcons’ quest for victory. RB Devonta Freeman picked up big plays on the ground and through the air, but his miss on Dont’a Hightower that led to a strip sack saw momentum rush to the New England sideline, and LT Jake Matthews’ hold was part of a sequence of plays that saw Atlanta deny themselves a shot to reestablish a two-score lead late in the game. The Falcons needed just one more play for the entire fourth quarter, but couldn’t come up with it.

Top defensive grades:

CB Robert Alford, 86.7

DE Dwight Freeney, 83.1

LB Deion Jones, 82.3

DT Grady Jarrett, 79.1

DT Ra’Shede Hageman, 78.0

Falcons’ pass defense runs out of steam

A three-sack performance from second year DT Grady Jarrett, a stunning pick-six from CB Robert Alford, and six pressures from the timeless Dwight Freeney…and it still wasn’t enough for the Falcons to put Tom Brady away. “One more” was the Patriots’ public motto in the lead up to this game, and it was all the Falcons’ defense needed in the final 20 minutes of regulation—and like their offense, they just couldn’t quite find it. Performances from the likes of Jarrett offer hope for the future, but will offer little solace as this defense stares in the face the unavoidable fact that they have surrendered, by far, the biggest comeback victory in Super Bowl history.

PFF Game-Ball Winner: Tom Brady, QB, Patriots

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.

| Director of Analysis

Ben joined Pro Football Focus in 2007, and has since been in charge of the company’s analysis process. He also contributes to PFF’s weekly NFL podcast.

  • rodrell green

    I hate Devonta Freeman so much right now

    • Branson

      Someone check if he bet money on the “over”

      • crosseyedlemon

        ESPN had reported that some guy had placed a $1.1 mill bet on the Falcons with one of the Vegas books. I’m assuming the poor guy took a high flyer off a bridge or hotel rooftop late last night.

    • DaStrongSKRAWN

      It’s not like Matt Ryan scanned the field or anything. 70/30, Freeman’s fault. Hightower was clearly blitzing on that play. Freeman wasn’t even looking Hightower’s way.

      • Malachi

        not to mention freeman was only on the field for that snap because coleman twisted his ankle on the previous play

  • JudoPrince

    Virtually all of Brady’s success came when the defense was gassed. The mistakes by Falcons offense really put the defense in a bind

    • James Winslow

      You have to play all sixty minutes man, Brady certainly did.

    • Paul

      He was saved by Edelman and Matt Ryan made the huge mistake.

      • James Winslow

        That was a huge play but it wasn’t whole game, that ball wasn’t going to get picked so the pats still would at least have chances.

        • mormonrock124

          Not sure how it wasn’t going to get picked? 3 Falcons had a legit shot and Edelman did work to catch that pass.

          Brady had about 4-6 passes that could’ve been picked and at least 2 drops, so the defensive plays and mistakes by Atlanta can’t just be ignored or discounted.

          • James Winslow

            I mean all three would have have to make a an amazing catch to bring it in, so I’m not sure what you mean by legitimate shot. Also Brady thew 2-3 balls that could be picked not 4-6 where does that number come from?

          • mormonrock124

            Well the ball hit Alford right in the hands which deflected it up in the air. The least likely of the three to catch that pass was Edelman, great catch, but Alford was in position to make a rather easy INT. Add to the fact he had already threw a pick earlier in the game then you have the catch by Bennett (Beasley hit his arm forcing ball to float aimlessly in the air) was lucky and could’ve been a pick, then on the game tying drive he threw two other passes that were nearly picked. His first throw hit the turf between two ATL defenders and after the 3rd down conversion he threw to Edelman that hit a defender right in the hands again. 3 almost picks on the game tying drive, the floating pass to Bennett, and the pick, so that’s 5 turnover worthy plays.

            And that’s just off the top of my head. I am sure if I watch the game again I could find more, but my overall point was to just make sure we know how lucky and great that Edelman catch really is.

            The reality is when that ball hits Alford’s hands Edelman is the least likely to make that play and that goes to show how good he is and how badly he wanted this game.

          • James Winslow

            Dude the Edelman catch is plastered all over the site none the three falcon defenders are barely close enough to make a play. Also the last drives those those balls were never endangered of getting picked, white got the ball before line backer tackled him, and vic basely tipped a pass and the ball landed out of harms way. Also the ball hit the ground wouldn’t been picked because it hit the ground before it reached anyone.

          • mormonrock124

            Well you’re wrong. All those throws were bad throws into covered areas where defenders either had their hands on the ball or were only ones who could catch, it’s clear as day.

            Even your rebuttal cites the ball was tipped on the Edelman catch, where was Brady throwing the ball??? If Alford doesn’t tip it in the air the next closet player was the safety, it was a great catch and individual effort by Edelman…it was a poor throw and read by Brady which wasn’t the only one he had in that game or that drive.

          • James Winslow

            Dude they may be not great throws but to be turnover worthy they
            defender has to have legitimate shot. Just getting a hand on it doesn’t
            count and defender just being close to the ball doesn’t count. I also agreed with you that one getting thrown at Edelman should be listed as a turnover worth throw. After it was tipped though no one had a good shot at it, you claimed it would of been intercepted after it was tipped.

          • Albert Heisenberg

            Lol you’re so butt-hurt. The fact of the matter is PFF TRACKS interception worthy throws and Brady only had 2 of them (the pick 6, and the tipped ball by Alford). The fact that they got TIPPED implies that the defender couldn’t get close enough to the ball to actually pick it off dummy.

            Facts: Matt Ryan choked under pressure with SUPERIOR talent and weaponry to the midgets running around in a New England Jersey. Not one player on New England could’ve made that catch Julio Jones made.

          • mormonrock124

            Tip implies fingertips not going right through someone’s hands. PFF is terrible at grading QB’s and I had no dog in this fight. On the last drive Brady had 3 TO worthy plays period. It’s on the tape, the announcers called it out and other more qualified analysts have said Brady got some breaks, it doesn’t change the fact he’s a great player, but maybe take his dick out of your mouth before commenting.

    • trajan2448

      The reason they were gassed was defending quick receivers in press man coverage and Brady’s relentless quick release. That’s why it takes 60 minutes. Maybe you think they should hand out prizes at halftime?

  • James Winslow

    Matt Ryan probably had the worst 144 passer rating game i have ever scene. You can’t take those sacks man, also shit play calling on shanahan.

    • Rick

      Shanahan failed when it mattered. At the 22 with a chance to seal the game, it’s unforgivable to not get any points. Kneel, kneel, kick would have won the game.

      • James Winslow

        True all those plays should of been runs fro coleman.

      • Tommy

        No idea why they didn’t throw the ball to Coleman specifically coming out of backfield vs OLB’s or ILB’s about 12-14 times. NE had nobody to match up with him in terms of speed,acceleration. And thrown another 5-8 passes to Freeman. Just attacked the crud out of NE’s OLB’s in space. Whenever they did use the RB’s in pass game, it seemed to be a massive mismatch. Ryan targeted both of them a total of 3 times and got 3 completions for 52 yards.
        think they could have abused NE with short/mid passing game similar to what Brady did using James White as a WR. NE’s defense had to key on Julio Jones big time and Sanu and Gabriel as deep threat, should have nickel and dimed crap out of them with that big lead. And avoided Ryan holding the ball taking sacks looking downfield.(5 of them) Really safe throws if designed well, where Ryan could have gotten rid of ball very fast. Kept clock running entire 2nd half.

      • Rufus

        Totally agree with Shanahan play calling. Remember saying in the moment…run, run, kick field goal. And, totally agree with running backs catching passes out of the backfield against NE LBs and stay in bounds.

  • SeattleSteve

    Jalen Collins (CB for Falcons) awesome “effort” on those two TDs …

  • Paul

    Tom Brady played mediocre football. Not sure how PFF comes to their grades, but they would have skewered other QBs for the mistakes Brady made. That pick 6 was awful. And Edelman saved him with that catch that was a near pick. Better to be lucky than good on Brady’s end while Edelman was more than good, he was great with that unreal grab.

    • James Winslow

      Dude Brady made some amazing throws and had a lot of bad drops, and a tipped ball doesn’t always equal interception. He killed it when it counts.

    • DaStrongSKRAWN

      Almost 200 passing yards in the 4th isn’t mediocre football. ATL was getting no pressure on him at all at the point but for 45 minutes, Brady and the offense looked pitiful.

      • trajan2448

        BRADY looked great holding trophy number 5.

        • Jim

          Atlanta runs twice and kicks the FG with 2:30 left to go up 11…GAME IS OVER. PERIOD. Wasted Freemans long catch/run and Julio Jones greatest catch ever, depriving both of a deserved SB ring. Kick the FG, GAME OVER. Kyle Shanahan has to be the second stupidest OC of all time, right behind Seattle’s from 2 years ago. If not for brain dead play calls with each game won, Brady is 3-4 in SB’s (with those 3 in question due to the Pats relentless and forever cheating). If not for idiot OC’s and cheating, Pats may be 0-7 for SBs, with Brady 0-5.

          • trajan2448

            Blah would could should means nothing. Btw champions a lot smarter than you like Warner Aikman, Simms, Johnson Kelly, Roethlisberger, Lewis. Michael Bennet etc etc etc call Brady the GOAT. He also woulda coulda shoulda easily have 7 rings, bUT he only has 5 back here on planet earth.

    • Albert Heisenberg

      Lol you sound so salty. Brady’s numbers in the 4th quarter and overtime were ungodly good. And Edelman had half as many drops (especially on 3rd down) as he did catches, that’s not great. Brady was masterful when it counted unlike Ryan who wilted under pressure. PFF HAS skewered Brady in the past (you must be new to this site), and the irony is that Rodgers has better offensive weapons (including the best pass protecting offensive line in the NFL) and couldnt bring his team back in the NFCCG. Why? Brady sustains drives (especially on 3rd down), Rodgers didn’t.

      The Edelman catch was great but it’s being overblown. It was tipped and would’ve likely hit the ground (go rewatch the replays). It was 1st down, so worst comes to worst the move on to 2nd down and have 2 more attempts to move the chains. The hyperbole is laughable. IF Julio Jones doesn’t make one of the best catches Ive ever seen, maybe the Falcons end up punting (see, anybody can play hypotheticals). The Tyree catch was luck too, no?

  • AJ

    Chung’s grade seems a bit high for someone who gave up a touchdown and a pass interference penalty. Idk maybe he was good in run defense and on all the other pass plays.

    Atlanta and New England basically traded places. First half was all Atlanta’s offense and defense; second half was all New England’s offense and defense. Tie game after regulation makes sense. Once New England won the OT coin toss, I don’t think anyone doubted they’d win. Atlanta’s defense just looked completely gassed for much of the second half. This is where they miss players like Clayborn and Trufant to keep the rotational players rested.

    Also Freeney wasn’t on the field for many obvious passing situations in favor of Brooks Reed, which made no sense unless it was for injury.

    • James Winslow

      Chung defended a pass, and was real good against the run. Really the only negative was the touchdown he gave up.

      • Connor Molloy

        And it was a damn-near indefensible throw by Ryan. I thought the coverage was actually pretty good

  • dlund6cutler

    I’m so glad the Patriots won but I feel kinda bad for Matt Ryan, I like that guy.

    • Jerrell Skinner

      Ha ha, I don’t…It was delicious watching him crack under the pressure!

  • DaStrongSKRAWN

    Atlanta went in celebration mode at halftime.
    Patriots did not.

    • TorreyAnderson

      So much so that Kyle Shanahan already started working on plays for San Francisco. 😀

  • Nik Hildebrand

    “Should we cover James White?”
    “Nah, man … what could we possibly gain by doing that?”
    — Two Falcons defenders, probably

  • TorreyAnderson

    Is “clutchness” and “anti-clutchness” taken into account with these grading algorithms? I have a hard time with number based evaluations when they clearly don’t take the clutch factor into account…or at least as much as they should.

    • Connor Molloy

      They try to eliminate subjectivity wherever possible, and the importance of one play is subjective. For example, the matt ryan sack looks terrible in hindsight because we know its important. But if the hold wasnt called on the next play, we might never think of that sack again. Taking a bad sack gets a flat grade, because if you try to decide how important it was, you end up using alot of hindsight. I could be wrong, maybe they do hammer him extra for that, but it seems against the idea of what PFF does

      Thats also why brady score was only 78.3. Obviously the average NFL fan would take note of the fact that he was shooting perfect darts into the secondary on the game winning drive, but that doesnt make his relatively-poor first half great

  • Ryan Lloyd

    How bad was Vic Beasley?

    • James Winslow

      He had nice pass defense in the endzone.

  • Tommy

    All credibility is going out your windows……U have a complete game grading with commentary and not “1” single mention of RB James White who caught a superbowl record “14” catches for 110yds, and added around 20 or so on the ground, and scored 3 TDs, including the WALK OFF SUPERBOWL rushing TD to win the title! The Best Game of this kids entire football LIFE on biggest,most important stage and all he does with all that pressure/gold on the line, look like Barry Sanders in open field on every catch almost, the first ATL defender struggled to get him on the ground on most of his catches due to his incredible balance,footing, and quickness. A smallish RB, powers ball into the endzone 2 times inside the 5 yard line, which includes final play where he broke a arm tackle, ran as hard as he could and got low to squeeze thru defenders and just cross the line with a dive. Thought it was a travesty the 4th round pick(2014) RB didn’t at least get a co-MVP nod with Brady.
    I realize Brady threw 466yds but he tossed the ball over 60 times, threw a pick 6 interception, and was nearly the GOAT by throwing into triple ATL coverage to Edelman on short slant in 4th qtr. & only the velocity on the throw saved him from CB Robert Alford getting his hands up & snagging a ball thrown directly at him. Even a tipped ball going 8 yards up in the air off Alford’s fingers, then down onto his toe with 1 leg uplifted while lying on his back, with 2 other ATL defenders right next to him on either side, and Edelman somehow ended up with a fluke catch on a F type Read/throw by the QB. He was deadly accurate other than that and maybe 1 other throw in entire 4th quarter, pitching lasers to well covered WR’s,RB’s and TE’s in his favor. Still don’t see how you don’t credit White with MVP or co MVP, Blount fumbled early, Lewis injured himself on sideline, White stepped up 3 levels & his performance deserved a MVP trophy, they might not win that game without Brady but they don’t win without White either “yesterday”. He made play after key play, picking up 1st downs on catches and runs, and scored 18 points by himself, with the bottom of 10th inning walkoff TD HOME-RUN! Give it up.

    • James Winslow

      Dude they may be not great throws but to be turnover worthy they defender has to have legitimate shot. Just getting a hand on it doesn’t count.

    • Albert Heisenberg

      White was a non-factor on rush downs thereby making NE VERY one-dimensional. Brady literally took the team on his back and carried them by audibling into playcalls that matched White up with linebackers. That’s less on White and more on pre-snap adjustments. Every single White rush td came at the back end of a Brady-engineered drive to get them there – and unlike Peyton Manning (who has an NFL record for td passes & pass attempts from the 1-yard line and goal-line) Brady called running plays to get White the ball.

      If Dion Lewis was in the game instead of White, chances are you get the same production a la Shane Vereen or Kevin Faulk from past years.

  • Rufus

    Wondering why James White wasn’t one of the top 5 offensively graded Pats?

    • James Winslow

      He was left wide open a alot, but he was great at the goal line,

  • Jim

    Atlanta runs twice and kicks the FG with 2:30 left to go up 11…GAME IS OVER. PERIOD. Wasted Freemans long catch/run and Julio Jones greatest catch ever, depriving both of a deserved SB ring. Kick the FG, GAME OVER. Kyle Shanahan has to be the second stupidest OC of all time, right behind Seattle’s from 2 years ago. If not for brain dead play calls with each game won, Brady is 3-4 in SB’s (with those 3 in question due to the Pats relentless and forever cheating). If not for idiot OC’s and cheating, Pats may be 0-7 for SBs.

    • etyb

      It’s cute how many excuses you had to use in your little hater rant.

    • Albert Heisenberg

      And they could EASILY be 7-0 if not for the lucky Tyree catch and the lucky Manningham catch.

      Rams SB: Pats won (no “lucky” catch): 1-0
      Panthers SB: Pats won (no “lucky” catch): 2-0
      Eagles SB: McNabb got butterflies: 3-0
      Giants SB: Tyree Catch: 4-0 (potentially or 3-1)
      Giants SB 2: Manningham Catch/Welker Drop: 5-0 (potentially 3-2)
      Seattle SB: Lucky Kearse Catch vs Butler INT: 6-0 (Potentially 4-3). *Fun Fact: Marshawn Lynch had the lowest TD% from the goal-line of any starting RB with over 200 rush attempts in the 14/5 NFL Season. It was not a foregone conclusion Seattle score if they run with Lynch. Period. If Super Bowl LI taught us anything, it is that NOTHING is a foregone conclusion in sports.
      Atlanta SB: Dumb Play-Calling vs Brady in SuperSaiyan Mode: 7-0 (Potentially 4-3)