Tom Brady vs. Matt Ryan: A Once-in-a-Generation Super Bowl QB Matchup

Brad Gagnon@Brad_Gagnon NFL National ColumnistJanuary 24, 2017

ATLANTA, GA - SEPTEMBER 29:  Tom Brady #12 of the New England Patriots is congratulated by Matt Ryan #2 of the Atlanta Falcons after their 30-23 win at Georgia Dome on September 29, 2013 in Atlanta, Georgia.  (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

When Matt Ryan of the Atlanta Falcons and Tom Brady of the New England Patriots meet in Houston on Feb. 5, it'll mark the first time this decade the league's first-team All-Pro quarterback has faced that season's second-team All-Pro signal-caller in the Super Bowl.

There's also a good chance Ryan or Brady is named MVP for the 2016 season, with the other finishing as runner-up. And this will mark the first time since 1984 the league's two highest-rated passers have faced off in the Super Bowl.

Super Bowls containing the league's highest-rated passers
SeasonHighest-ratedSecond-highest-rated
2016Matt Ryan, FalconsTom Brady, Patriots
1984Dan Marino, DolphinsJoe Montana, 49ers
1978Roger Staubach, CowboysTerry Bradshaw, Steelers
1971Roger Staubach, CowboysBob Griese, Dolphins
1966Len Dawson, Chiefs*Bart Starr, Packers
Pro Football Reference

All-Pro quarterbacks last went head-to-head in the Super Bowl in 2009, when Peyton Manning's Indianapolis Colts met Drew Brees' New Orleans Saints in Super Bowl XLIV. We were likely watching future Hall of Famers do battle when Ben Roethlisberger's Pittsburgh Steelers took on Aaron Rodgers' Green Bay Packers the next year.

But none of those quarterbacks were as statistically dominant as Brady and Ryan were within their respective conferences in 2016.

Joe Montana during Super Bowl XIX.
Joe Montana during Super Bowl XIX.Focus On Sport/Getty Images

Brady led the AFC with a completion percentage of 67.4, a yards-per-attempt average of 8.2, a passer rating of 112.2 and a QBR of 83.1, while also setting a new single-season record with a 28-to-2 touchdown-to-interception ratio.

Meanwhile, Ryan led the league with a touchdown rate of 7.1, a yards-per-attempt average of 9.3, a passer rating of 117.1 and a QBR of 83.3. That yards-per-attempt average was the highest in the NFL this century, and that rating was the fifth-highest in league history.

Where they ranked in their respective conferences
CategoryRyanBrady
Comp.%3rd1st
TD-INT ratio3rd1st
YPA1st1st
Rating1st1st
QBR1st1st
Pro Football Reference

To find a quarterback matchup that measures up to this on paper, you have to go back more than 30 years. Here's a breakdown of some of the closest comparisons:

Super Bowl XLIX (2014): Patriots (Brady) vs. Seattle Seahawks (Russell Wilson)

This is one of those Super Bowl quarterback matchups that might look better as it ages if Wilson becomes a surefire Hall of Famer. That said, neither were All-Pros in 2014. Brady started the season slowly, and Wilson was only the NFL's 10th-highest-rated passer.

     

Super Bowl XLVIII (2013): Broncos (Manning) vs. Seahawks (Wilson)

Same as above, except both were Pro Bowlers, and Manning was the league MVP. Wilson wasn't rated in the top five in any of the key rate-based statistical categories, and Marshawn Lynch was the heart of that offense.

             

Super Bowl XLV (2010): Packers (Rodgers) vs. Steelers (Roethlisberger)

Rodgers in fine form.
Rodgers in fine form.Handout/Getty Images

This game featured two of the most uniquely talented quarterbacks in league history, and both are likely headed to the Hall of Fame. They were two of the five highest-rated passers in football that year, but they both failed to make the Pro Bowl. Brady was the clear-cut MVP that season, however, and both of these guys fell well short on paper.

         

Super Bowl XLIV (2009): Saints (Brees) vs. Colts (Manning)

Manning was the league MVP and a first-team All-Pro, while Brees was a second-team All-Pro and the league's highest-rated passer. However, the two threw a combined 27 interceptions that year compared to just nine for Brady and Ryan in 2016.

Where they ranked in their respective conferences
CategoryManningBrees
Comp.%1st1st
TD-INT ratio4th3rd
YPA4th1st
Rating3rd1st
QBR1st1st
Pro Football Reference

Super Bowl XXXIX (2004): Patriots (Brady) vs. Philadelphia Eagles (Donovan McNabb)

Peyton Manning was the MVP and Offensive Player of the Year. Neither Brady nor McNabb ranked in the top three in completion percentage, yards-per-attempt average or passer rating.

        

Super Bowl XXXII (1997): Broncos (John Elway) vs. Packers (Brett Favre)

We've moved into another century and certainly another era, but this Hall of Fame matchup between Favre and Elway still doesn't stack up statistically. Favre won MVP and both were Pro Bowlers, but neither ranked in the top five in completion percentage—Elway barely ranked in the top 20.

         

Super Bowl XXXI (1996): Packers (Favre) vs. Patriots (Drew Bledsoe)

Favre was the MVP and Bledsoe was a Pro Bowler, but the Pats quarterback ranked out of the top seven in completion percentage, yards-per-attempt average and passer rating.

          

Super Bowl XXVII (1992): Dallas Cowboys (Troy Aikman) vs. Buffalo Bills (Jim Kelly)

Michael Jackson during the halftime show.
Michael Jackson during the halftime show.Focus On Sport/Getty Images

They met again in '93, but Kelly was better in '92, and both he and Aikman made the Pro Bowl this season. Still, Steve Young was the MVP, and Kelly ranked out of the top 10 in completion percentage and passer rating.

       

Super Bowl XXIV (1989): San Francisco 49ers (Joe Montana) vs. Broncos (Elway)

Beyond the numbers, this was one of the greatest Super Bowl quarterback matchups of all time. Montana was the MVP, the Offensive Player of the Year and the league's highest-rated passer by a huge margin. Elway was never a big numbers guy, so this isn't entirely fair, but he ranked 20th in completion percentage and 17th in passer rating.

         

Super Bowl XIX (1984): 49ers (Montana) vs. Miami Dolphins (Dan Marino)

Move over, Brady vs. Ryan. This is the last time the league's two highest-rated passers met in the Super Bowl. The future Hall of Famers were 28-3 that year, with Marino winning MVP. They dominated in almost all of the key rate-based categories.

Where they ranked in their respective conferences
CategoryMarinoMontana
Comp.%1st2nd
TD-INT ratio2nd1st
YPA1st1st
Rating1st1st
Pro Football Reference

          

Super Bowl XVI (1981): 49ers (Montana) vs. Cincinnati Bengals (Ken Anderson)

This also gives Brady-Ryan a run for its money on paper. Anderson was the MVP, first-team All-Pro and Offensive Player of the Year while leading the league with a passer rating of 98.4. Montana was a second-team All-Pro while leading the league with a completion percentage of 63.7.

        

Where they ranked in their respective conferences
CategoryAndersonMontana
Comp.%1st1st
TD-INT ratio1st2nd
YPA3rd4th
Rating1st1st
Pro Football Reference

Super Bowl XIII (1978): Steelers (Terry Bradshaw) vs. Cowboys (Roger Staubach)

Bradshaw was the MVP and first-team All-Pro quarterback that year, while Staubach was the league's highest-rated passer despite the fact Seattle's Jim Zorn beat him out for second-team All-Pro honors. Neither ranked in the top seven in completion percentage, but history still gives this matchup an edge over Brady-Ryan. For now, anyway.

                

Super Bowl XI (1976): Oakland Raiders (Ken Stabler) vs. Minnesota Vikings (Fran Tarkenton)

Ken Stabler hands off to Pete Banaszak.
Ken Stabler hands off to Pete Banaszak.Michael Zagaris/Getty Images

Baltimore Colts quarterback Bert Jones won MVP and took home first-team All-Pro honors this year, but this Hall of Fame matchup is still worth noting. Both were Pro Bowlers, with Stabler leading the league in completion percentage (Tarkenton ranked second), yards per attempt and passer rating.

         

Super Bowl VI (1971): Cowboys (Staubach) vs. Dolphins (Bob Griese)

The league's two highest-rated passers and first- and second-team All-Pros also ranked in the top six in completion percentage and yards per attempt, but neither could win MVP and they still didn't fare as well as some of the "duos" above in rate-based stats.

       

Super Bowl I (1966): Packers (Bart Starr) vs. Kansas City Chiefs (Len Dawson)

Before the merger, Starr was the '66 MVP while leading the league by a 16.8-point margin with a 105.0 passer rating. Meanwhile, Dawson's 101.7 rating led all AFL quarterbacks by a 15.5-point margin. The two led their respective leagues in all four key rate-based categories.

Where they ranked in their respective leagues
CategoryStarrDawson
Comp.%1st1st
TD-INT ratio1st1st
YPA1st1st
Rating1st1st
Pro Football Reference

Might we one day view Brady-Ryan the way we do Starr-Dawson, Bradshaw-Staubach, Montana-Marino, Montana-Anderson and Montana-Elway? The incredible numbers both Brady and Ryan put up this year indicate there's a chance.

On paper, this matchup beats recent classics involving Brady, Brees, Rodgers, Roethlisberger, Manning and Wilson.

The advanced stats provide reinforcement:

  • Pro Football Focus rated Brady and Ryan (in that order) as the top two quarterbacks in the NFL this season.
  • PFF determined that Ryan was the league's highest-rated passer on deep attempts (136.1 rating with 11 touchdowns and zero interceptions), with Brady ranking second (124.4 rating, eight touchdowns and one pick).
  • Combined, the two have thrown one interception on 132 deep passes. No other quarterback with more than 50 such attempts has fewer than two picks. Ryan was the only quarterback in the NFL with 25 or more deep attempts and zero deep interceptions.
  • When under pressure this season, Ryan ranked third among PFF qualifiers with a passer rating of 87.2 (he was the only quarterback in the NFL to be pressured on more than 50 dropbacks and not throw an interception), while Brady ranked fifth with an under-pressure rating of 84.9.

OK, but what have they done for us lately?

On Sunday, Ryan became the first quarterback in modern NFL history to post a 120-plus passer rating in six consecutive games. During that stretch, he has completed 72.8 percent of his passes for 9.5 yards per attempt. He's thrown 18 touchdowns to zero interceptions and has a passer rating of 133.3. The Falcons are 6-0 in that span with a points-per-game average of 39.0.

Brady isn't close to as hot, but he's posted a 120-plus rating in three of his last four games, with a dud divisional-round performance against the Houston Texans acting as an aberration. He has a touchdown-to-interception ratio of 33-to-4 since returning from suspension in Week 5, and the Pats have lost just one game during that run. In their last four games, they're averaging 36.5 points.

Bart Starr and the Green Bay Packers.
Bart Starr and the Green Bay Packers.Focus On Sport/Getty Images

It's possible Rodgers wins MVP and/or Offensive Player of the Year, and there were things many of us saw from him this season—especially late in the year—that we've never seen and may never see again. He's special, as are Roethlisberger, Brees and Wilson.

That's why the Super Bowl has featured plenty of great quarterback matchups in recent years and was destined to have another one as soon as the Patriots, Steelers, Falcons and Packers were the only teams left standing.

But strictly on paper, the Super Bowl hasn't had a quarterback matchup like this one in at least three decades.

Enjoy.

          

Brad Gagnon has covered the NFL for Bleacher Report since 2012.

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