NFL News & Analysis

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

FOXBORO, MA - JANUARY 22: Tom Brady #12 of the New England Patriots throws a pass during the second half against the Pittsburgh Steelers in the AFC Championship Game at Gillette Stadium on January 22, 2017 in Foxboro, Massachusetts. (Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images)

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.

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