The mercury hits a low of -8 on Sunday in Minneapolis, which hosts its first outdoor NFL playoff game since the Fran Tarkenton-led Vikings bested the Los Angeles Rams in balmy 19-degree weather at kickoff in 1976.
Minnesota, which moves into a new dome next season, should enjoy it, or suffer through it, while it lasts. And it could be worse. Sunday looks unlikely to compete with the coldest NFL games of all time. In 1967, linebacker Ray Nitschike lost his toenails from frostbite and CBS’s cameras froze in focus when the Green Bay Packers beat the Dallas Cowboys on a Bart Starr QB sneak in -13 degrees. Fifteen years later, Cincinnati beat San Diego, surely not at home at -9, to compete in the Super Bowl in a Michigan snowstorm, albeit protected from the elements in the Pontiac Silverdome. Though the thermometer remained above where it stood for the Ice Bowl, the -59 windchill in Cincinnati actually fell lower than it did at Lambeau in 1967.
The Weather Channel forecasts a high of three on Sunday. But it may feel a whole lot colder, especially where the Seahawks stand on the sideline. “What oddsmakers might not know is that the Vikings could have a distinct advantage in occupying the north sideline Sunday,” ESPN’s Thomas Neumann writes. “They will receive far more sunlight than the Seahawks, who will be positioned on the south sideline. The temperature difference between the two sidelines was a significant 20 degrees at a recent game.”
It feels colder still sitting high above the field. Despite Minnesota competing in its first playoff game in three years, tickets to Sunday’s contest go for face value on the secondary market. The team’s box office still offers a few seats. Home is where the hearth is.
“We know Minnesotans are resilient when it comes to cold weather and unified when it comes to the Vikings, so we view this Sunday’s game as a rallying moment,” Vikings Owner Mark Wilf maintained in a statement. “At the same time, we want our fans to be smart and safe when they are supporting the team, and we are taking a few extra steps to assist in that effort this Sunday.”
The Vikings seek to compensate for the cold by providing free hand warmers, coffee, and a warming house for fans. The team encourages spectators to bring blankets and cardboard to place under their feet for insulation from the cold concrete. It’s Minnesota, where residents plug in their car batteries overnight and its largest city boasts a skyway to protect against Jack Frost, so presumably, despite watching in a dome for more than three decades, the locals know how to deal with the Polar Vortex.
Michael Rand of the Minneapolis Star-Tribune examined the ten coldest games in league history and discovered quarterbacks complete fewer passes and teams score far fewer points than normal. One might add that the cold impedes the distances that balls travel in the kicking game, which impacts scoring and field position. And although the balls feel like bricks, we learned during last year’s postseason that the balls actually deflate in cold weather.
Such conditions generally favor the team with the stronger running game. This normally means advantage Seattle. It doesn’t when Adrian Peterson plays for the other team. Seattle and Minnesota remain two of the only teams in the NFL calling pass and run plays almost equally. Seattle ranks third in run calls and Minnesota ranks four. So, they both come into the game uniquely equipped to manage through personnel if not through acclimatization. The Seahawks backfield played banged-up throughout the year. Marshawn Lynch expects to return. A healthy or hurt Marshawn Lynch? The best running back in the league—he plays for Minnesota—concedes: “I would say he’s probably the second-best back in the league” even with the abdomen injury. Adrian Peterson bests Beast Mode, hurt or not. But on the other side of the ball the Seahawks play as the stingiest defense against the rush while the Vikings offer a mediocre run defense.
The Seahawks, looking like their old dominant selves in the second half of the season, enter the game as five-point favorites. But home underdogs still rank as the closest thing to a safe bet in the NFL (not gambling remains the smartest and safest bet). Alas, throw out past stats. A Wildcard game played with the red liquid flirting with the wrong side of zero plays as a wildcard.
America watches the unpredictable in the predictably cold weather with great enjoyment. Minnesota offers the plaintive plea, “Come dome soon.”