Winner: QB Tom Brady
The Patriots quarterback lit up the Steelers defense for 384 yards and 3 touchdowns on 76.2% passing. Brady was 5 for 6 for 139 yards and 2 touchdowns on passes 15+ yards down the field for a perfect 158.3 passer rating. He completed all 6 of his pass attempts against the blitz for 108 yards and a touchdown. He was decisive. He was accurate. He was mobile. He was unflappable and unstoppable.
Ryan Keiran wrote that after a few stinkers, Brady was due for a huge game. That seems awfully prescient right now. The Steelers were similarly ranked to the Texans in DVOA; the Falcons are in the bottom six of the league. Brady should be able to put together another great performance in the Super Bowl.
Winner: WR Chris Hogan
9 receptions. 180 yards. 2 touchdowns. He might not be Falcons WR Julio Jones, but Hogan did his best impression as he found empty zone after empty zone in the Pittsburgh secondary. It was like the Steelers were allergic to covering Hogan as he slipped behind his cornerback and into the second level on a regular basis.
Hogan was battling a thigh injury, but that didn’t stop him from piecing together the best game of his career. It couldn’t have come at a better time. The Super Bowl will be a great time for an encore performance.
Winner: WR Julian Edelman
Edelman collected 118 yards and 1 touchdown on 8 receptions, which has become a standard day at the office for the receiver. He is averaging 103.3 yards from scrimmage over the past ten games, which is easily the best mark of any receiver in the league over that span of time. The Patriots needed Edelman to step up once they lost TE Rob Gronkowski and he’s certainly delivered.
There’s something to be said about Brady focusing on Edelman and Hogan, but if it keeps working, why change it?
Loser: WR Malcolm Mitchell
Mitchell makes the list after collecting 1 catch for 5 yards on 4 targets. He caught his first target of the game, but missed the next three. He dropped an easy pass on 3rd and 1 during the opening drive and nearly tipped the ball to a defender in the same way that Michael Floyd tipped the ball against the Texans. Brady was incomplete to Mitchell on the second drive of the game.
Mitchell saw just one target for the rest of the game, another incompletion on third down where the Patriots had to settle for a field goal. He’ll need to step up his performance in the Super Bowl.
Winner: Patriots offensive line
Rookie LG Joe Thuney struggled at times, which seems to be the norm down the back stretch of the season, but the other four linemen were flat out dominant. RG Shaq Mason and RT Marcus Cannon didn’t give up a single pressure all game, while Solder and Andrews were very solid in their pass protection. The Steelers only generated three pressures all game, according to Pro Football Focus.
The run blocking was less successful, but the Patriots were always going to beat the Steelers through the air and the offensive line rebounded nicely after a weak performance against the Houston Texans.
Winner: Patriots run defense
Sure, the Patriots benefit from the Steelers loss of RB Le’Veon Bell to a groin injury, but the New England run defense held the Steelers to 54 yards on 20 carries (2.7 yards per carry). Pittsburgh needed their rushing attack to succeed to open up the field for the passing game. That never happened and the Patriots did a great job of holding their lane integrity to stop the Steelers rushers.
Winner: Patriots CB Malcolm Butler
The Patriots held Steelers WR Antonio Brown to 7 receptions and 77 yards- one of his least productive games of the season- and a lot is thanks to the terrific coverage work by Butler. Over the course of the game, Butler allowed his 2 receptions for 24 yards in coverage of Brown, as the Steelers needed to find ways for their receiver to escape Butler Island.
This is the first time where Butler truly got the best of the Steelers wideout, who is regarded as one of the best in the entire league. He’ll get another challenge against Falcons WR Julio Jones in the Super Bowl, if that’s how the Patriots want to match-up.
Losers: Detractors of the Patriots defense
Despite ranking #1 in the NFL in points allowed, the Patriots heard about their questionable defense all year. “They haven’t played a good quarterback,” some said. “They’ll be exposed when they face a good quarterback.”
Nah. The Patriots shut down Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger for the entire game- prior to the Steelers final drive, Roethlisberger was 24 of 38 for 249 yards and 1 interception for a passer rating of 71.1. Roethlisberger struggled to connect with his top receiver in Antonio Brown and couldn’t consistently find his receivers. He resorted to checkdowns for a lot of the game.
Falcons QB Matt Ryan is playing at a whole different level, but the Patriots defense has earned the right to roll their eyes at their detractors.