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The 5 Coldest NFL Playoff Games Ever Played: Facts and Analysis

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The Vikings-Seahawks wildcard match-up is forecast to be one of the coldest temperature games in NFL history. Here is a brief history and analysis of the 5 coldest playoff games ever played, with some key findings.

Jay Koelzer/Getty Images

Baby it's gonna be cold outside on Sunday.  Current forecast is for roughly -15F to -20F degree windchill during the game.  That would make it roughly the 7th coldest game ever played in the NFL, and the 6th coldest playoff game.

Here are the 5 coldest playoff games ever played, along with the results:

December 31, 1967, -48F windchill,  Lambeau Field, NFL Championship Game, Packers vs. Cowboys, "The Ice Bowl"

The 9-4-1 Packers beat the 9-5 Cowboys 21-17 in that game, on a last second TD plunge by Bart Starr to win it after getting out to a 14-0 lead early.  There were 4 turnovers in the game, 2 by each team.  The heating coils installed on the field did not work for the game, so the field was frozen the whole game and icy, hence "The Ice Bowl" name.

January 10, 1982, -59F windchill, Riverfront Stadium, AFC Championship Game, Bengals vs. Chargers, "The Freezer Bowl"

The 12-4 Bengals(4.5 point favorites) beat the 10-6 Chargers in that game 27-7.   This was the Air Coryell offense behind Dan Fouts vs. the Bengal offense behind Ken Anderson.  The Bengals got off to a 10 point lead in the first quarter, and basically never looked back.  There were 5 turnovers in the game, 4 by the Chargers.

January 7, 1996, -15F windchill, Arrowhead stadium, AFC Divisional Playoff Game, Chiefs vs. Colts

The Chiefs were 8 point favorites going into the game, but the 13-3 Chiefs lost to the 9-7 Colts (a dome team) 10-7 in a game where the Chiefs turned the ball over 4 times, and missed 3 field goals, while the Colts missed only 1 field goal and had only 1 turnover.  The only points scored in the second half was the game winning field goal by the Colts in the 3rd quarter.

January 4, 1981, -5F, Cleveland Municipal Stadium, AFC Divisional Playoff Game, Browns vs. Raiders

The Browns were 3.5 point favorites, but the 11-5 Raiders beat the 11-5 Browns in this game 14-12, in a game that featured 7 turnovers- 3 by Oakland and 4 by the Browns, including a last second interception in the end zone that preserved the Oakland victory.   The Browns were on the Raider 13 yard line at the time, and could have opted for a field goal, but instead went for one more chance for a TD that resulted in an interception to end the game.

January 20, 2008, -26F windchill, Lambeau Field, NFC Championship Game, Packers vs. Giants

The 10-6 Giants beat the 13-3 Packers 23-20 in overtime.   The Packers were 7.5 point favorites.  The game featured Brett Favre's last pass as a Packer- an interception in overtime that led to the Giants victory.  The Giants had 5 fumbles in the game, but only lost one of them, while the Packers had two turnovers- both Favre interceptions.

Some Statistical Analysis

  • In these five playoff games, the home team won only two of them, the visitors three.
  • Warm weather or dome teams won two of them, cold weather teams three.  Teams from cold weather climates (dome or not) won 4 of the 5 games.
  • 4 of the 5 games were decided by 4 points or less.
  • 3 of the 5 games came down to the last play of the game or overtime.
  • The pre-game favorites won only twice (assuming the Packers were favorites in the Ice Bowl).  The two heaviest favored teams (2008 Packers and Chiefs) both lost.
  • The team with the better record going into the game won twice (1 game teams had the same record)
  • There were 24 total turnovers, or just under 5 per game- which is 2 more than average.
  • The team with the fewest turnovers won every game (The Ice Bowl both teams had 2 turnovers)
  • There were 6.4 fumbles per game on average, with an average of 2 lost fumbles
  • There were 14 interceptions, or a little under 3 per game
  • Only 11 of 23 field goal attempts were made - less than half
  • In 3 of 4 games, the team that missed the fewest field goals won (one game had the same # of missed attempts)
  • Punts averaged 33 yards net
  • Only the 2008 teams had over 200 yards passing.  The average passing yards per team for the rest of the games was about 150 yards.
  • Completion % passing correlated higher with winning the game than total yards passing
  • Completion % passing was significantly lower- about 10 percentage points lower- than average
  • In 4 of the 5 games, the team with the most rushing attempts won the game
  • In 3 of the 5 games, the team with the most rushing yards won the game
  • Only the '08 Giants and both '82 teams had over 300 total yards offense
  • In 3 games the team with the higher ranked defense in points allowed during the season won
  • In 2 games the team with the higher ranked offense in points scored during the season won
  • The only game that wasn't close featured a #26 ranked San Diego defense.  Every other game featured at least average, and most often top 10 ranked defenses.

So What Can We Learn From These Statistics?

Most of the findings are not surprising, and often confirm the importance of a few key factors

  • There will be more fumbles, and more turnovers than average, and the team with the fewest turnovers will win
  • Cold weather climate teams retain an advantage, presumably by being able to practice in cold weather, if not play in it also.  However, this is diminished/neutralized when playing another cold weather climate team.
  • Extreme cold weather playoff games are likely to be very close
  • The team that runs the ball more is likely to win
  • Offensive production, scoring, punting, kicking, and field goal % made will all be diminished significantly in cold weather games
  • The team with the better record, the team favored to win, and the home team seemed to have little correlation with which team won the game.
  • There is not a significant correlation between either the higher ranked offense, or higher ranked defense winning the game.

Extreme Cold Game Plan

Given the above, the best game planning for an extreme cold weather game includes:

  • Take care of the ball on offense.  Eliminating fumbles, dropped passes and interceptions is paramount to winning the game.  Everybody touching the ball on offense needs to practice holding, gripping and catching the ball in cold weather.
  • Run the ball.  When passing, get the ball out quickly and don't take chances.  Adjust plays accordingly.
  • Stop the run on defense.  This may likely include more players in the box.
  • Force turnovers on defense.  Practice forcing and recovering fumbles repeatedly in cold weather.