For an NFL player, winning the Super Bowl is one of the toughest things to achieve. Think about it ... we play through a 17-week regular season, followed by a win-or-go-home playoff schedule that demands near-perfect play each week -- and even then, winning the Lombardi Trophy is not guaranteed after all the hard work.
The two drawn-out weeks leading up to the Super Bowl -- which the Denver Broncos and Carolina Panthers are going through now ahead of Super Bowl 50 -- are trying and can test a player's focus. Most fans and even some inexperienced young players don't quite understand the stresses that come with playing in the single biggest sporting event of the year.
While playing in four Super Bowls with the New England Patriots, I learned how to handle nearly everything that was thrown at me during that preparatory phase. A lot of players get caught up in the term Super Bowl, which entails a lot of interaction with the media, getting tickets and reservations for family and friends, going to events and performing other obligations. Even my own teammates -- players on the practice squad or IR -- could be distracting to the guys playing. At times, they didn't follow team guidelines set by our coaches -- and were sometimes sent home -- because they weren't physically playing in the game and weren't as invested. A number of these outside distractions affected me during my preparation for Super Bowl XXXI, which we wound up losing to the Packers, and I feel like I could've done more before the game to help my team. After the fact, I realized that players aren't there for the Super Bowl, they are there to play a game that is merely called the Super Bowl.
But let me make it clear that Super Bowl experience doesn't promise a win. Look at the Buffalo Bills in the early 1990s. They went to four straight Super Bowls and lost all four. Having experience simply allows players to more easily shut out outside commotion and narrow in on game preparation, giving a team a better opportunity for a victory. That's what I felt I was able to do in my final three Super Bowl appearances, and if a large group of players do the same, the team is in a good position heading into the game.
Of course, even game preparation is challenging in more ways than one. Two weeks is a long time, and many players get anxious; practice can become tedious. As much as coaches and players try to look at the Super Bowl like it's just another game, it's not. It's the biggest game of your life. It's important that players stick to their assignments and don't try to play outside themselves or do more than they need to.
We were able to find success as a Patriots defense when we didn't try to change too much, scheme-wise, during those two weeks. By this time in the season, it's crucial that players are comfortable and playing fast -- meaning they're reacting rather than thinking about what's happening in each play. We had to prepare differently for all four Super Bowl teams (Green Bay, St. Louis, Carolina and Philadelphia) we faced, but our calm and focused approached helped us achieve success in three of those games.
This Sunday, it will be clear who was able to overcome the chaos of the Super Bowl buildup and perform at the highest level. Let me remind you, it's not an easy task.