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How Does Cold Weather Actually Impact NFL Games?

With playoff action returning to Lambeau Field this weekend, let’s discuss how sub-freezing temperatures affect passing, scoring, and the football itself.

It’s a hallowed institution not just in football, but across the entire world of sports: NFL Playoff games at Lambeau Field.

And we’ll merrily, frigidly run it all back when the Green Bay Packers make their season’s playoff debut at home against the San Francisco 49ers. Naturally, it’s going to be a chiller. Accuweather is forecasting temperatures hovering right around zero, with “feels like” temps dropping into negative territory.

Forecast for Saturday night, Jan. 22, in Green Bay, Wisconsin (via Accuweather)

We know that Aaron Rodgers knows how to get things done in all manner of environments. But when football game temperatures get not simply cold, but outrageously cold, what actually changes? Are teams legitimately forced to alter their would-be game plans? Do offenses suffer as a result?

You have questions, Boardroom has answers.

What Happens to the Football itself in Super-cold Weather?

If you remember science class back in grade school, you learned that matter expands as it gets hotter and contracts as it gets colder. Common sense would seem to suggest that this has a noticeable impact on gripping, throwing, and kicking a football. But as WeatherSTEM notes of games in freezing temperatures:

  • Passing accuracy only decreases by 2%
  • Field goal accuracy decreases by 2%
  • Average punting distance decreases by three yards

According to Covers.com, per-game passing yardage decreases by 5% when temperatures drop below 25 degrees. Still, not a big whoop.

Is There Less Scoring in NFL Games With Freezing Temperatures?

You’d think that with a dip in passing and kicking success rate — even a minor one — the overall scoring output among teams playing in frigid conditions would drop.

And you’d be wrong.

As John Paulsen of 4For4 calculates, NFL games above freezing and below 80 degrees averaged 42.1 total points scored between 1994 and 2016. Let’s compare that to:

  • 42.6 total points in all games below 32 degrees
  • 42.8 points in games below 20 degrees
  • 43.3 points in games below 10 degrees

That’s right. Over the course of this 22-year sample, scoring didn’t go down as temperatures got colder — it actually experienced a slight increase.

FanDuel Sportsbook’s betting line for 49ers vs. Packers on Jan. 22 at Lambeau Field
How Have Road Teams Fared in the NFL’s Coldest Games Ever?

We’re always intrigued about what factors contribute to changes in how we calculate home-field advantage. With that in mind, let’s look at the five coldest games in NFL history by wind chill factor and see if road teams really stand a chance:

5. Seahawks vs. Vikings 2016

  • Temperature: -6
  • Wind chill: -25
  • Result: Seahawks (road team) won 10-9

4. Raiders vs. Bills, 1994

  • Temperature: 0
  • Wind chill: -32
  • Result: Bills (home team) won 29-23

3. Raiders vs. Browns, 1981

  • Temperature: -4
  • Wind chill: -36
  • Result: Raiders (road team) won 14-12

2. Cowboys vs. Packers, 1967 (“The Ice Bowl”)

  • Temperature: -13
  • Wind chill: -48
  • Result: Packers (home team) won 21-17

1. Chargers vs. Bengals, 1982 (“The Freezer Bowl”)

  • Temperature: -9
  • Wind chill: -59
  • Result: Bengals (home team) won 27-7

There you go. In the two coldest recorded games ever played in the NFL, the home team won. Road teams did prevail in two of the five coldest, but it’s notable that the Seahawks benefited from Minnesota’s Blair Walsh infamously missing a 26-yard gimme field goal back in 2016.

Be advised, 49ers.

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About The Author
Sam Dunn
Sam Dunn
Sam Dunn is the Managing Editor of Boardroom. Before joining the team, he was an editor and multimedia talent for several sports and culture verticals at Minute Media and an editor, reporter, and site manager at SB Nation. A specialist in content strategy, copywriting, and SEO, he has additionally worked as a digital consultant in the corporate services, retail, and tech industries. He cannot be expected to be impartial on any matter regarding the Florida Gators or Atlanta Braves. Follow him on Twitter @RealFakeSamDunn.