Facing the Cold, Hard Facts of NFL Playoff Football

Something in the stomach hurts this time of year, when we watch great football players and their teams falter and we suspect it's because they can't hack a little cold weather. In much of the c

Jan 19, 2005 at 2:06 pm
Jerry Dowling

Something in the stomach hurts this time of year, when we watch great football players and their teams falter and we suspect it's because they can't hack a little cold weather.

In much of the country, the cold weather is a test of a football team, not to mention its fans. No other sport really demands that the fans share the coldness, which bonds the fans with their teams, when successful.

Bengals fans know the feeling, remembering fondly the Freezer Bowl, the Jan 10, 1982, AFC Championship Game victory against San Diego in the old Riverfront Stadium. Any fan who outlasted that bitter sub-zero chill still feels partially responsible for winning that game.

Maybe there's a little nostalgia going on here, and it could be that the old sportswriter is a bit of a fogey, always preaching about the run while a real football innovator like Bill Walsh says such thinking is outdated because athletic skill is stretching the game. But it seems rushing the ball and handling the cold go hand in hand, while precision passing and windy chill do not.

It's not that cold weather teams are constitutively better than domed teams or warm weather teams. The point is that pro football champions, with few exceptions, must win that game in the cold at some point. It's almost a rite of passage.

It's part of pro football's relevance. The weather is always a factor in January, just like it really is.

Notice that college champs don't have to pass the cold weather test. Southern California has won the national title two years running and seldom sees anything worse than a November day in Pullman, Wash. Louisiana State shared the title last year playing in a league that doesn't go north of Lexington, Ky.

The pros contend with the elements no matter how hard they try not to. Often, trying not to is a recipe for failing when the challenge can't be avoided.

This past weekend, another two teams choosing artificial conditions for their home environs were eliminated because they were forced to play in the chill on the road. More locally, the weekend went down as another big game disappointment for Indianapolis Colts quarterback Peyton Manning. But another pretty good quarterback, Minnesota's Daunte Culpepper, lost the same way.

A Manning detractor might chime in here to add that it can't be cold weather holding back the Indy star, since he couldn't ever beat Florida in college. But a larger issue looms.

It's cold in January. No football coach can control the weather with any amount of Xs and Os. Manning's college nemesis, former Florida coach Steve Spurrier, never won in the cold either.

Behind Manning, the Colts are heirs to the St. Louis Rams, who began this century as the greatest show on turf. The Rams were a big play, precision passing team that took advantage of ideal conditions in their home dome, won their games there through the playoffs and won the first Super Bowl of this century at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta. If the Colts could ever beat that path, they might win a Super Bowl, too.

Manning threw for 49 touchdowns this year as the Colts choreographed a tight passing attack in the formerly named Hoosier Dome. But when the Colts went to Foxboro on Jan. 16, conditions were cold and misty, the New Englanders emphasized hitting and Manning went home with a 20-3 loss while the Patriots contemplated a possible third Super Bowl win in four years.

The Colts are a made-for-TV football team playing its home games in a television studio. They stood no chance against the made-by-reality Patriots, formed in football's natural setting. The Patriots were better conditioned, in more ways than one.

The Vikings lost another playoff game on the road in cold weather, a jilting state of affairs for those of us who once knew them by another identity. Back in those days, cold weather was part of the Vikings' signature. Together, the Vikings and their fans beat sub-zero temperatures as the mighty purple set up four Super Bowl appearances from their base at the old Metropolitan Stadium.

About 25 years ago, the power structure in Minneapolis conspired with then-Vikings owner Max Winter to push through the construction of a domed stadium. They argued the Met was too small, the Vikings couldn't maximize revenues that way and the team might move to Arizona without new digs.

So the digs were built, and the Vikings changed. They completely lost their mystique. As the Vikings have lurched through domed mediocrity for the past two decades, teams from Buffalo, Chicago, Green Bay, Boston and Pittsburgh picked up the cold weather mantle.

Now the Vikings are just another dome trick, sure to be exposed on occasions like Jan. 16, when they fell 27-14 in Philadelphia against a team that had basically taken a month off. The Vikings haven't been to a Super Bowl since they became a dome team, and it doesn't appear the Colts are any closer. But they will be, if they ever accomplish enough during the regular season to win more home playoff games.

We're so taken by the drama of the playoffs that we easily lose track of the utter predictability of the early rounds. Home teams win in the playoffs, nearly three out of four times. In the last 10 years, including this one, the home team is 72-26 in the playoffs.

For a while there, when three road teams won two weeks ago, we heard talk that the home field advantage might not matter much. But all four home teams won last weekend, and home teams now are 49-11 in the divisional round.

The above said, home field advantage goes away in the conference championship round, during which home teams are only 10-8 over the past nine years. That's worth noting, because the conditions are right for the road teams to win again this weekend.

For one, the Patriots are a road team this weekend, playing in Pittsburgh for the AFC title. Some believe the Steelers are the worst 15-1 team ever, but it's hard to see what's so bad about them. Their defense is the NFL's best overall, best against the run and best on the scoreboard. They throw seldom, but effectively, rolling downfield on Jerome Bettis' bus.

The Steelers beat New England earlier this year, but the Steelers are an upstart and New England has been winning Super Bowls. Once they're in the playoffs, the Patriots don't lose. Now they get a grudge match. The Patriots will be on their best behavior.

Philadelphia has lost the NFC title game three straight times, the last two at home against Southern teams who beat cold weather bugaboos. Now the Falcons and Michael Vick are coming up from Atlanta.

Of the four remaining playoff teams, Vick's Falcons are the wild card. They scored just three more points than their opponents all year, Vick's fantasy league owners curse him for his small passing numbers and no one knows who these guys are. But the Falcons are going to Philadelphia, and it might make them famous.

Vick reminds you of a younger Donovan McNabb, except he's much more explosive, a new expression of football. The Falcons will be dangerous. Just as you can't pick against the Patriots until they lose, you can't pick the Eagles in this round until they win.

Which portends an Atlanta-New England Super Bowl — Vick's improvisational skill against New England coach Bill Belichick's defensive scheming. Nice game, if we can get it.

But whoever shows up in Jacksonville for the big game, it's going to be two teams that have proved equal to the pain of winter. That means neither the Vikings nor the Colts.