NFL Teams Win With Their Feet, Not the Freeze
(Corrects matchups in last paragraph.)
The National Football League playoffs kicked off in exciting fashion, and if we learned anything from wild-card weekend, it’s that for cold-weather teams, home field isn’t always an advantage.
Aside from the Indianapolis Colts’ stunning comeback over the Kansas City Chiefs, which took place indoors at Indy’s Lucas Oil Stadium and was so ridiculously improbable it deserves its own column, the frigid weather played an important role in this weekend’s matchups, working against home teams who on paper would seem more accustomed to playing in such conditions. All three of these games went to warm-weather road teams that are either built for or adjusted to a game plan based on running the ball and defense up front, which are conducive to playing in low temperatures.
San Francisco 49ers Defeated Green Bay Packers, 23-20
The game that could have been most influenced by the weather was the 49ers’ last-second win over the Packers. The temperature at Lambeau Field was about 5 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 15 degrees Celsius) at kickoff, with a wind chill of minus 9; that actually favored the 49ers, an old-school football team with a futuristic quarterback. In the regular season, San Francisco had the third-most rushing yards and the fourth-best run defense. On Sunday, the team relied on Colin Kaepernick’s air and ground attacks, as the quarterback threw for 227 yards with a touchdown and an interception and led the team with 98 rushing yards, including the 11-yard scramble on third-and-8 to set up Phil Dawson’s 33-yard, game-winning field goal. Frank Gore added 66 rushing yards and a touchdown as the 49ers ran for 167 total yards.
On the other side of the field, Aaron Rodgers and the Packers struggled to gain their footing at first, failing to gain a first down in their first three drives. Rodgers, the backbone of the Packers and by most measures a better quarterback than Kaepernick, bounced back from a silent first quarter and had moments of brilliance, but he still finished with just one touchdown on 177 yards, his career low in the postseason. Running back Eddie Lacy added 81 yards, but the team finished with just 124 total rushing yards. As we saw in the final weeks of the regular season, the Packers live and die by their quarterback, and they were simply outdueled by the 49ers and Kaepernick, whose ability to run the ball helped them better adjust to the elements.
New Orleans Saints Defeated Philadelphia Eagles, 26-24
The game that was actually most influenced by the weather was the Saints’ victory over the Eagles, whose Lincoln Financial Field had a kickoff temperature of about 24 degrees. On its face, conditions seemed unfavorable for a Saints team that has struggled in cold weather and often looks like an entirely different team away from the comforts of dome. Throw in their well-known road demons -- they were 3-5 in the regular season and 0-5 historically in postseason road games -- and the Saints needed to drastically adjust their game plan to overcome the shroud of doubt hanging over Saturday’s matchup.
Adjust they did, masterfully and surprisingly shying away from a style of play that powered them to an 11-5 record this season and helped them win a Super Bowl in 2009. Like the Packers, the Saints are built around their quarterback, Drew Brees, and his more than 5,100 passing yards, good for second in the league behind only the Denver Broncos' Peyton Manning. Conversely, New Orleans had the eighth-worst running game and a rush defense that ranked in the bottom half of the league, which could have spelled disaster against an Eagles team that led the league in yards on the ground.
Instead, the Saints put a power-running game on the field, running the ball 36 times while throwing 30 times. New Orleans totaled 185 rushing yards, with 97 yards and a touchdown by Mark Ingram and a 45-yard effort by Khiry Robinson, while Brees finished with 250 yards -- well below his 2013 season average of more than 322 yards a game. The team’s ground effort was even more impressive given the injury to starting running back Pierre Thomas. Meanwhile, the Saints managed to stuff LeSean McCoy, who averaged more than 100 yards a game this season, holding the Eagles star to just 77 rushing yards and one touchdown on the day. For now, it seems the Saints have solved their road and cold problems, though they face the ultimate test next weekend against the Seattle Seahawks.
San Diego Chargers Defeated Cincinnati Bengals, 27-10
The most surprising thing about the Chargers’ win over the Bengals wasn’t just that Cincinnati had the NFL’s third-best defense and was undefeated at home -- it was the way San Diego pulled it off. Playing in relatively balmy 40-degree weather at Cincinnati’s Paul Brown Stadium, the Chargers chose to mostly forgo quarterback Philip Rivers, who had a quiet but efficient game, completing 12 of 16 passes for 128 yards, a touchdown and no interceptions. Instead, San Diego turned to the ground, finishing with 196 total rushing yards behind Ronnie Brown and Danny Woodhead, who ran for 77 yards and 54 yards, respectively, while scoring a touchdown apiece. On the other hand, the Chargers defense performed admirably against the Bengals’ two-pronged rush attack of Giovani Bernard and BenJarvus Green-Ellis, holding each back scoreless and limiting the team to just 113 rushing yards.
For Cincinnati, Andy Dalton did what Andy Dalton does: make poor decisions and throw the ball way too much. The Bengals quarterback had 51 pass attempts, throwing for 326 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions, and committing three crucial turnovers in the second half. Like the other two teams that lost at home, the Bengals’ inability to stray from their regular-season blueprint ultimately cost them the game.
To wit, the 49ers and the Saints may have benefited from the weather pushing them to run the ball, but in both those cases, the better team won anyway. Because they happen to play in divisions with the dominant Seahawks and Carolina Panthers, both had to travel to cold cities to play teams with worse regular-season records: New Orleans (11-5) visited Philadelphia (10-6), while San Francisco (12-4) visited Green Bay (8-7-1). This highlights the problem with divisional playoff seeding, which sportswriters complain about every year; such complaints have recently gained enough traction that the NFL is considering reseeding by record. League spokesman Brian McCarthy recently said the NFL has looked at “every scenario,” paying little more than lip service to the idea of actually restructuring. This year, it probably didn’t make much of a difference, with the deserving teams advancing to the next round, though considering the games’ outcomes, the cold-weather division winners might have wished for a playoff format that spared them such home-field “advantage.”
(Kavitha A. Davidson is a Bloomberg View columnist who writes about sports. Follow her on Twitter at @kavithadavidson.)