You might have noticed that the Atlanta Falcons' defense wore down as Super Bowl LI went on. The Falcons were flying all over the field in the first half, holding the Patriots to just three points while mostly shutting down Tom Brady, Julian Edelman and the rest of New England's weapons.
The Pats ran 42 plays in the first half, totaling 215 yards -- an average of 5.1 per play that fell well short of their regular-season mark. All those plays added up, though, and the Atlanta defense began to tire in the second half.
The most important way that fatigue manifested itself was in a lack of pressure.
As we noted in our Key Matchup post heading into the game -- and as everyone and their mother has noted for years -- the key to beating the Patriots is getting pressure on Brady without having to resort to the blitz. In the first half, the Falcons did just that. In the second half, and especially the fourth quarter, they did not. And it cost them the game.
Getting pressure on only 12.9 percent of dropbacks in the fourth quarter and overtime is how you let Brady complete 21 of 27 passes for 246 yards and a touchdown while leading the final stages of a comeback from 25 points down to win the Super Bowl.
The Patriots had seven drives after halftime. The first ended in a punt. The sixth was a one-play drive that ran the final three seconds of regulation off the clock after the Pats had tied the game and the Falcons punted it away. The other five drives ended in scores, with four of them covering 70-plus yards and three lasting 10 plays or more.
By the end of the game, New England had run 93 plays from scrimmage -- 99 if you include penalties. Whichever number you take is the most a team has ever run in the Super Bowl, per Pro-Football-Reference. Even if you removed the eight plays the Pats ran in overtime, that would still be true.
By way of perspective, the greatest number of plays an Atlanta opponent had run in any game this season was 81. The defense being on the field for 99 plays Sunday night was the equivalent of them playing almost another entire quarter beyond that game. Combine the sheer number of plays they faced with the style of defense they were playing for most of the game, and it's no surprise New England saw its yards per play skyrocket from 5.1 to 6.8 after halftime.
Keep a defense on the field long enough and eventually it'll break.