Prior to Super Bowl LI, members of the New England Patriots tried to explain how their previous Super Bowl experience wouldn’t play a role in the biggest game of the year. As the Patriots fell behind 28-3 late in the third quarter, that sentiment seemed prescient.
But as the Patriots clawed back to win 34-28 in overtime, it turns out that the Patriots previous experience at the Super Bowl did play a factor: New England knew how to pace themselves for the entire game.
“It’s such a long game between pregame, the start of the game, halftime, TV timeouts and so forth,” Patriots head coach Bill Belichick said before the Super Bowl. “It just extends longer than what it normally does including the pregame part of it. We just try and pace ourselves through that. Some of that is nutrition, hydration and things like that.
“Part of it is an understanding of what it’s going to be like so you don’t get surprised and get into the middle of the game or the middle of the third quarter. That’s kind of when the game would be ending but there’s still another 20 minutes to play or so.”
“Just to get to the game, it ends up being, I don’t know, a four hour game?,” Patriots QB Tom Brady noted. “A longer pregame and a longer halftime, so it’s normally three, three-and-a-half (hours) ends up being four-and-a-half to five hours. So it’s a lot longer than normal and it’s the last game of the year, so it just ends up being a long day. You’ve got to be able to have something left at the end of the game. You can’t waste it all early in the third quarter.”
That sounds like a prediction, right? The middle of the third quarter in the Super Bowl is when typical games end, according to Belichick and Brady...and that’s right when the Patriots used their superior conditioning to mount a comeback. Belichick and Brady probably weren’t referencing the Falcons directly, but it’s clear that the Patriots expected an inexperienced Super Bowl team to wear down in the third quarter.
Patriots players from Matthew Slater to Stephen Gostkowski to Nate Solder all referenced the extended halftime period as a key difference between the Super Bowl and other games and how important it was for the team to pace itself.
Compare that focus by the team with Super Bowl experience to that of the green Atlanta Falcons squad, and it’s clear that the Patriots were better prepared for the long slog.
Falcons WR Mohamed Sanu told NFL Network’s Good Morning Football that halftime definitely affected the Falcons, “because usually halftime is only like 15 minutes so when you're not on the field for an hour, it's like going to work out, having a great workout, sitting on the couch for an hour and then trying to work out again.”
Sanu also said that the Falcons “weren’t playing as aggressively as we usually do,” in the second half, although he links that with the team’s big lead and not halftime.
Falcons CB Jalen Collins downplayed the impact of the extended Super Bowl schedule prior to the game, saying that he would “not really” change his preparations. Falcons C Alex Mack wanted to treat the Super Bowl with the same “focus” as he had “for the playoff games.”
Perhaps the Patriots should send a Super Bowl ring to Lady Gaga as thanks for her halftime performance changing the tempo of the game.
It’s no surprise that the Falcons, whose game is reliant on speed, slowed down as the game wore on and the Patriots were better able to finish the game on a strong note. Atlanta wanted to treat the Super Bowl like any other game and they slowed down exactly when Belichick and Brady predicted- halfway through the third quarter.