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Super Bowl LI grades: Ranking the performances of every major player

Both quarterbacks delivered. Both left tackles came up small. And one running back stood tall as the best player on the field in Super Bowl LI. We took an in-depth look at the film to produce grades for every significant Patriots and Falcons player.

Putting a bow on Super Bowl LI with a few lingering thoughts, plus rankings for each of the players on offense and defense.

• Sorry, but the Patriots’ 34–28 overtime victory was not a great game and should not be high on the list of greatest Super Bowl games. Certainly the greatest comeback and one of the most thrilling finishes, but how can a game be considered great when even some Patriots fans were doing laundry in the third quarter with one eye on the game? Just because a movie has a terrific ending, should it be nominated for an Oscar if the first two hours were decidedly uneven? Of course not. This game was fourth among the Patriots’ Super Bowls, behind Patriots-Seahawks, Patriots-Giants I and Patriots-Rams.

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• A lot is being made of the fact that Falcons receiver Aldrick Robinson had blown by Patriots CB Malcolm Butler on the play when Dont’a Hightower had his strip sack, but Patriots DE Chris Long was right there to affect Matt Ryan’s pass even if Devonta Freeman had properly executed his block on Hightower. The chances of that play working were so low that the Falcons should have just tried to pick up the first down and give the defense a much-needed rest. I’m all for being aggressive, but that was not the right time given how winded the Falcons’ defense was. Falcons coach Dan Quinn should have rejected the play call.

• Similarly, it is 100% on Quinn, and not Shanahan, that the Falcons blew their chance at cementing the game after Julio Jones’s circus catch to the New England 22-yard line with 4:40 remaining. Quinn is in charge of game management. At that point, the Falcons were playing the clock and the scoreboard, not the Patriots, and Quinn needed to manage that situation into three runs and a field goal. He failed.

• In the time that the score went from 14–0 to 28–9, the Falcons’ defense was on the field for 41 plays (including penalties) to 12 for the offense. That stretch took the legs out of the Atlanta defense. The 12-play, 72-yard drive that resulted in a field goal to make it 28–12 finished the unit off. They were on fumes after that.

• Fatigue contributed big-time to the Falcons going from pressuring Brady on 64% of dropbacks in the first half to just 17.9% in the second.

• That being said, there is not a whole lot more the Falcons could have done. Tom Brady made nine throws in the final quarter that could not be defensed. They were simply put in the perfect spot with anticipation. There’s nothing the Falcons could do. Included in that group is Brady’s 12-yard throw to Malcolm Mitchell on third-and-11 with 7:03 remaining. Brady had been sacked three times in the previous five plays. How many other quarterbacks come back from that type of beating and then unleash a rocket with another pass rusher in his face?

• Certainly the third-and-10 pass from Brady to Chris Hogan, Julian Edelman’s circus catch (which probably would have been picked off if Edelman hadn’t slowed Robert Alford for a split second with a head fake to the corner) and the Brady to Danny Amendola strike were all huge on the final drive of regulation. But for pure passing artistry, give me Brady’s 14-yard teardrop to Amendola on the second play of overtime. Brady threw it from the 24-yard-line on the opposite hash to the sideline at the 44, before Amendola was out of his break and over a perfectly positioned cornerback. It was a thing of beauty.

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• An overlooked play was Patrick Chung breaking up a pass to Austin Hooper with 59 seconds left in the third quarter. If Hooper completes the catch at the New England 35, it’s third-and-four and Atlanta is in field-goal range for the three more points it would desperately need. Of course, the way the rest of the game went, Jake Matthews probably would have been called for holding anyway.

• If the Patriots would have lost, Malcolm Butler’s pass interference penalty on third-and-four at the New England nine-yard line with 8:43 left in the third quarter would have loomed large. It was unnecessary, and Atlanta scored a touchdown on the next play to make it 28–3. Big difference between that and 24–3.

And now, on with the rankings.

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What follows are my rankings for each positional player that played at least 10% of the snaps on offense or defense (sorry, special teams is a different beast). This is from my personal grading system, which is a rudimentary plus/minus system for above-average and below-average plays. After I calculate the percentage a player did what I deem to be his assignment, then I factor in the plus/minus plays and also take into account playing time and position (offensive linemen and defensive backs don’t have as many chances for “plus” plays, etc.). Note: While I do lend more weight to game-changing plays (positively and negatively), I am not contemplating a player’s “value” to his team. This is simply how efficient a player was over the course of the game.

Players with an “A” grade

1. James White, RB, Patriots: Tom Brady might have been the Super Bowl MVP, but White was by far the best New England player from start to finish with 12 “plus” plays and only one questionable play (Brady looked like he wanted White to change a route based on where the defender was playing, and it contributed to a sack). He even threw in two nice blitz pickups as well.

2. Dwight Freeney, DE, Falcons: Completely dominated Patriots left tackle Nate Solder with a sack, 2.5 hits and three hurries. Only one of those happened in the second half, however.

3. Grady Jarrett, DT, Falcons: Just a force with three sacks, a hit and a hurry. Tried to put the Falcons over the top with two sacks in three plays in the fourth quarter.

4. Dont’a Hightower, LB, Patriots: New England started to play defense when its captain started imposing his will at the point of attack with a sack, a hit, a hurry and three stuffed runs.

5. Tom Brady, QB, Patriots: Started pulling the trigger on throws he passed up in the first half once the scoreboard dictated it, and he was sensational in the final quarter and overtime. But let’s be honest: Brady, who absolutely was getting pressured in the first half, was not good for nearly three quarters of that game. He missed open receivers, and he also missed some better options at times. And, let’s not forget, he threw a pick-six.

6. Trey Flowers, DE, Patriots: The rising star continued his ascent on the biggest stage with 2.5 sacks, a hit and a hurry. The Falcons had no answers for his quickness and strength, whether he was lined up on the edge or over the center.

7. Alan Branch, DT, Patriots: The big man continued to control the middle of the line against the pass (he had a half-sack officially, but I had him for two full sacks) and against the run (two stuffs).

8. Brooks Reed, DE, Falcons: Had a sneaky good game with three hurries and three plus plays against the run.

9. Matt Ryan, QB, Falcons: Was terrific for much of the game but some of his decision-making, especially late, led to some unneeded pressure when he failed to pull the trigger at times.

10. Julio Jones, WR, Falcons: Yes, the Patriots doubled him nearly all game, but considering how great he was on his four catches, Ryan should have tried to force the ball to Jones more, especially late.

11. Patrick Chung, S/LB, Patriots: He gave up the touchdown pass to Austin Hooper, but overall this might have been his best coverage game in his career. A big reason why the Falcons’ RBs largely did nothing in the pass game.

12. Robert Alford, CB, Falcons: Had an all-time battle with Julian Edelman and had the edge in the matchup. Plus, he executed the sneaky coverage on the pick-six to perfection.

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Players with “B” grades

13. Julian Edelman, WR, Patriots: Had a lot of effective attention paid to him (which is something the Patriots will need to look at in the off-season), but he helped keep the offense on the field in the first half.

14. Malcom Mitchell, WR, Patriots: Didn’t play like a rookie down the stretch with all the timing throws that he and Brady executed, including once when Mitchell fell down, got up and made a huge catch.

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15. Danny Amendola, WR, Patriots: Helped get the offense going in the fourth quarter.

16. Logan Ryan, CB, Patriots: Did a great job in coverage and was outstanding in run support as well. Made himself a lot of money heading into free agency.

17. Devonta Freeman, RB, Falcons: Was electric for stretches in this game, which raises the question: Why didn’t he see the ball more?

18. Marcus Cannon, RT, Patriots: Wasn’t perfect with a sack, hurry and 1.5 stuffed runs allowed but he had a handful of crushing run blocks.

19. Ryan Schraeder, RT, Falcons: Nearly identical game to his counterpart, Cannon, with a sack, hit and hurry allowed, but several big run blocks.

20. Deion Jones, LB, Falcons: Flew all over the field in the first half, including a huge forced fumble. But he really lost his legs in the second half and started to have some issues.

21. Devin McCourty, S, Patriots
22. Taylor Gabriel, WR, Falcons
23. Austin Hooper, TE, Falcons
24. Vic Beasley, DE, Falcons
25. Martellus Bennett, TE, Patriots
26. Malcolm Butler, CB, Patriots
27. De'Vondre Campbell, LB, Falcons
28. Chris Chester, RG, Falcons
29. Alex Mack, C, Falcons
30. Keanu Neal, SS, Falcons
31. Ricardo Allen, FS, Falcons
32. David Andrews, C, Patriots
33. Andy Levitre, Falcons
34. Jonathan Babineaux, DT, Falcons
35. Mohamed Sanu, WR, Falcons
36. Chris Long, DE, Patriots
37. Jabaal Sheard, DE, Patriots
38. Deji Olatoye, CB, Falcons
39. C.J. Goodwin, CB, Falcons
40. Tyson Jackson, DT, Falcons
41. Chris Hogan, WR, Patriots
42. Duron Harmon, FS, Patriots

Players with “C” grades

43. Courtney Upshaw, DL, Falcons
44. Tevin Coleman, RB, Falcons
45. Malcom Brown, DT, Patriots
46. Joe Vellano, DT, Falcons
47. Levine Toilolo, TE, Falcons
48. Rob Ninkovich, DE, Patriots
49. Joe Thuney, LG, Patriots
50. Eric Rowe, CB, Patriots
51. Dion Lewis, RB, Patriots
52. Tom Compton, RT, Falcons
53. Patrick DiMarco, FB, Falcons
54. Aldrick Robinson, WR, Falcons
55. Vincent Valentine, DT, Patriots
56. James Develin, FB, Patriots
57. LeGarrette Blount, RB, Patriots
58. Elandon Roberts, LB, Patriots
59. Justin Hardy, WR, Falcons
60. Matt Lengel, TE, Patriots

Players with “D” grades

61. Brian Poole, CB, Falcons: Had a nice play against a screen, but Mr. Handsy had two big third-down penalties and could have played the game-tying, two-point conversion better.

62. Jalen Collins, CB, Falcons: Was repeatedly targeted by Brady and struggled to hold up.

63. Shea McClellin, LB, Patriots: Had a QB hit but struggled against the run when he was in the game and appeared to be benched.

64. Shaq Mason, RG, Patriots: Was mostly on the receiving end of Grady Jarrett’s blunt force trauma at the point of attack. Gave up two sacks, a hit, three hurries and stuffed run.

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65. Kyle Van Noy, LB, Patriots: Had his moments dropping into Tampa 2 coverage but was largely lost against the run and was often in the middle of the Falcons’ big scampers.

66. Jake Matthews, LT, Falcons: A rough night for the left tackles, as his two holding penalties killed his team, in addition to the sack and two hits he allowed.

67. Nate Solder, LT, Patriots: Was taken to the woodshed by Old Man Freeney and his spin move to the tune of one sack, two hits and nine hurries allowed. Solder’s only saving grace was that Freeney was gassed in the fourth quarter.