Sporting Charts

Analysis Of NFL Results During Cold Weather Months

“It is only in sorrow bad weather masters us; in joy we face the storm and defy it.” ~ Amelia Barr

The San Diego Chargers had been an early American Football League powerhouse. However, few teams had a more frigid welcome into the National Football League (NFL). The Chargers failed to assemble a winning season in their first eight NFL campaigns including a couple two-win seasons.

The misery all changed in 1978 when Don Coryell and his trail blazing offense were hired as an early midseason replacement for Tommy Prothro. San Diego finished the 1978 season at 9-7 and fell just short of a playoff berth. Big improvements in 1979 were tempered when quarterback Dan Fouts went cold against the Houston Oilers in a divisional playoff battle. Five interceptions later and the Chargers were bounced from the playoffs.

The 1980 Chargers scorched their opponents for touchdowns like few teams before them. San Diego claimed their first playoff win and hosted the Oakland Raiders in the conference title game. The Raiders scored with a blistering pace in the first half. Anyone who saw Fouts knew he had a remarkable arm, but his success was as much attributed to adjusting his demeanor appropriately as the situation called for it. Fouts was as fiery as he was cool under pressure. The Charger pivot mounted a comeback but came up one touchdown short.

Entering 1981, the previous playoff defeats were seen by the locker room as baby steps towards a championship season. The heartbreak in 1979 and 1980 lit a fire under the team.  On paper, their first obstacle in the playoffs was the Miami Dolphins. But the mid-70° F hot and humid weather in Miami would be as daunting an opponent as the Dolphins. This battle in Miami’s sweltering Orange Bowl would exemplify Kellen Winslow’s hall of fame career. 13 catches. A game saving blocked field goal in the dying seconds of regulation. The epic overtime classic was eventually won by the Chargers. San Diego had simply endured the conditions. Their reward? A visit to Cincinnati in the dead of winter with a trip to the Super Bowl on the line.

Greeting them Sunday morning on the banks of the Ohio was -9° F and a wind chill like none the NFL had ever seen. Cold weather in San Diego usually means tossing on a sweater for walks along the beach. But this afternoon, the bitterness would leave you with frost bite your body would never forget. The last time the Chargers played an outside game after December 1st in a cold weather city had been on December 21, 1975. It happened to be in Cincinnati, as well, and the Bengals handed them a stinging 47-17 biting loss. The 1982 conference championship game would turn out no different and the Chargers would fall 27-7 to the Bengals.

The chilling performance that January afternoon in Cincinnati would signal the beginning of the end to San Diego’s run of success. The Chargers would make the playoffs again in 1982 but eventually slide into season after season of mediocrity as Fouts, Winslow and company would pass their prime. The 1981 Chargers were able to put up torrid numbers in the heat, but were ineffective in the cold. And it cost them the Super Bowl.

Do other teams from the south exhibit the same traits as the 1981 Chargers when visiting cold weather cities? Do home teams have a distinct advantage once December rolls around? Is it true that cold weather affects the outcome of a game including diminishing the eventual point total?

DEFINING A “COLD WEATHER CITY”

These were only some of the questions that came to mind as I started considering the impact that cold weather could have on NFL results. I have set two constraints in my analysis of the NFL’s cold weather trends: I have separated warm weather months (September to November) from cold weather months (December through to the end of the playoffs) and I needed a metric for defining a “cold weather city” or “cold weather team”.

The following graph shows the average high temperature (measured in °Fahrenheit) for the month of December in each NFL city where NFL football isn’t played under a dome. For the purposes of this analysis, I have defined a cold weather city to be one with an average December high of 45°F and below. To no one’s surprise, Green Bay is the coldest of all NFL homes. However, the Rocky Mountain Denver Broncos and Seattle, the team with the northern most residence, are left off the list.

Cold -weather -1


Note: Data for average monthly temperatures was obtained from weather.com as of November 28, 2013.

DO NFL RESULTS CHANGE COME DECEMBER?

I analyzed data for NFL regular season and playoff games dating back to the 1978 season. I compared the results of every game played during that period to the games from December through February in cold weather cities. I performed this comparison on both straight-up and against the spread results. The following chart summarizes my findings. Do home teams have a distinct advantage once December rolls around?

Cold -weather -2


The answer is definitively, yes. Home teams not surprisingly win more often than visitors. Since 1978, home teams boast a record of 5,075-3,625-17 for a .583 winning percentage. If you isolate cold weather home teams playing after November, the winning percentage climbs to .627 and a 604-359-2 record. Similarly, the home team winning percentage since 1978 against the spread increases from .502 to .541 when breaking out games played from December onward in cold weather cities.

But are certain locales worse to visit come December? The following graph shows the success of the visiting team when playing in the elements. Since 1978, among all cold weather cities, visitors won more often against the Browns, Jets and Bills from December through the playoffs than the home team did.

Cold -weather -3 

On the other hand, visiting teams have won fewer than 30% of their games after November against the Ravens, Steelers, Patriots and Packers. Now let me guess what you are thinking. On one hand you have three teams with one combined Super Bowl (and it was 45 years ago to boot) and, on the other, you have four teams with 15 rings in 22 trips. Therefore, I needed to look at these results a bit differently.

Obviously some franchises have had more success than others. And it’s this success that clouds the ability to assess the impact cold weather attributes to the outcome. As a remedy, I compared the home winning percentages of visiting teams against cold weather opponents from September to November to their winning percentage from December on. The graph below shows the increase or decrease in performance of the visitors when the weather gets colder.

Cold -weather -4


The results show that Buffalo struggles mightily at home down the stretch and that the Bengals win over 20% more often at home in December and January than they do the rest of the year. Interestingly, New England and Green Bay improve their records in the colder months. However, one could argue that the elite teams are great because of their ability to win when the games matter the most.

Determining which cold weather teams play the best and worst at home in the colder months is only one side of the equation. What about assessing which teams play better when travelling to cold weather destinations like Foxboro and Soldier Field? The following table summarizes the best and worst winning percentages over the past 10 seasons (2003-12) when playing in a cold weather city after November. I have excluded teams that had played fewer than ten of these games.

Performance in Games Played in Cold Weather Cities
from 2003-12 from December through February 

Top Five Records

Worst Five Records

Team

Record

Winning Pct.

Team

Record

Winning Pct.

New England

45-5

0.900

Cleveland

11-26

0.297

Pittsburgh

34-14

0.708

Dallas

3-8

0.273

Green Bay

32-16

0.667

Oakland

3-8

0.273

Baltimore

29-17

0.630

Minnesota

2-10

0.167

Philadelphia

22-14

0.611

Detroit

0-12

0.000


Many of the successful teams presented above make the list once again. Among those that struggle, I found the bottom two teams noteworthy. The last time the Detroit Lions won in December in a cold weather city was in 2000 in an utterly forgettable 10-7 snoozer against the Jets. In fact, Detroit is 1-19 in their last 20 of these brisk battles.

What do the Vikings and Lions have in common other than being NFC North rivals? Both franchises reside in cold weather cities. And both teams play under a dome. It makes me wonder how other dome teams perform in the cold. As you can imagine, it’s not very well. From 2003-12, dome teams are 11-43 playing in cold weather cities after November. It makes you wonder how well the Saints, Colts and Cardinals might fare playing at MetLife Stadium on a Super Sunday in February.

If dome teams struggle, you ought to think those franchises basking in the heat twelve months a year wouldn’t perform much better. I included the following eight teams, from east to west, to be among the NFL’s sun belt: The Florida franchises, Atlanta, New Orleans, Houston, Arizona and San Diego. These eight teams have compiled a 24-44 record from 2003-12 visiting the cold weather teams in December and onward.

Among the franchises who don’t call a cold weather city home, the following teams were the most successful playing in a cold venue after November over the past ten seasons. None of these records are roaring successes; however, these are all road games and the Redskins and Chargers will take their winning records amidst the adverse conditions.

Performance in Games Played in Cold Weather Cities
from 2003-12 from December through February

Team

Record

Winning Pct.

San Diego

7-5

.583

Washington

6-5

.545

Carolina

5-5

.500

Miami

6-8

.429

Indianapolis

4-6

.400


HOW DOES COLD WEATHER AFFECT SCORING?

Since 1978, the average points scored in an NFL game is 41.8. Winning (or tying) teams average 26.7 points per game and the losing (or tying) team has averaged 15.1. The following graph not only compares league average point totals by month, but also presents the average point totals in games played in cold weather cities versus those played elsewhere.

Cold -weather -5 

The average temperature of the venue doesn’t have much of an impact in September, but there is a fairly consistent spread compared to the league average in the other months. This is the most evident after November as the average points per game played in cold weather cities drops by 1.5 and 1.8 in December and January/February, respectively.

The average point total in NFL regular season and playoff contests has increased from 41.8 since 1978 to 43.3 when narrowing the data from 2003-12 and further to 44.4 when focusing on the period from 2008-12. Consequently, I graphed the same results as above, but confined the data to 2008-12 since there is evidence that scoring is on the rise.

Cold -weather -6


Oddly, the low variability in point totals in the first few weeks of the season has disappeared and is replaced with a gap similar to what was evident in December in the graph displaying results over the longer time frame. Over this five year period, there is a distinct and irrational peak in scoring in cold weather cities in November.  The other striking feature of this graph is the large gap between the league average and the average in cold weather cities in January. The variability is somewhat attributable to a lower sample size; however, the result is still palpable. This could be good intel come February when laying wagers in the point totals for Super Bowl XLVIII.

Is MetLife Stadium one of those parks where the elements drive the scoring down? To find out, I thought I better analyze the average point totals in games hosted after November by the cold weather teams since 1978. Despite calling the same field home, I have segregated the results for the New York Giants and the New York Jets.

Cold -weather -7

Note: The AVG bar represents the NFL average over all regular season and playoff games and is not limited to the period from December through February.

The adverse conditions in Cincinnati and Kansas City have the least impact on the score of the game. And despite having the lowest mean high December temperature, Green Bay boasts the third highest point totals; however, the scoring averages may have more to do with Brett Favre and Aaron Rodgers than the quality of the frozen tundra. These three franchises are all above the NFL average of 41.8.

The three hosts that curtail scoring come December are the Cleveland Browns, the New York Jets and the Chicago Bears. I can see that the difficulty scoring in Chicago and Cleveland could have something to do with the cold wind coming off of the Great Lakes. But why is the average so low when the Jets are at home? It’s not low, in comparison, for the Giants and these two teams have shared a New Jersey residence since the Jets left Shea following the 1983 season. This fact tells me that the weather rolling through a stadium is only one factor. The style of football played and the quality of the team will also reflect in the results.

In an attempt to remove the influence of a team’s quality of play, I have also compared the average point totals from September to November to the average from December through to the end of the playoffs. The graph below shows the increase or decrease in point totals as the weather gets colder.

Cold -weather -8


The December conditions in Kansas City appear to lend itself to an abundance of scoring compared to the previous months. No other cold weather city has a differential even close to that magnitude. The Patriots and Jets head in the other direction. Points are scarcer when these AFC East teams host games after November.

Again, with an increase in scoring in recent years, I performed a similar analysis but narrowed the data to 2008-12. Look at how visible the difference is in the average point totals of Giants and Jets home games from December through the end of the playoffs. Games involving the Giants are averaging over a touchdown more than the league average. And the contests involving the Jets are averaging more than a touchdown less.

Cold -weather -9


Note: The AVG bar represents the NFL average over all regular season and playoff games and is not limited to the period from December through February.

At the end of the day, the average point totals appear to have more correlation with the style of football played (e.g., high flying offense, shutdown defense) or the overall quality of the team (e.g., consistently stifled offense, ineffective defense) than it does with the wind chill. The four franchises above the NFL average combined for a 217-127-1 record (including playoffs) between 2008-12 whereas the bottom four were 162-177 over the same period. In fact, if you remove the Ravens from the equation, the bottom three teams were a miserable 99-147.

Bob Sullivan writes periodically for SportingCharts.com and can be followed on Twitter at @mrbobsullivan.

NOTES:

- The data on NFL regular season and playoff spreads were accessed via Sunshine Forecast whose current source is scoresandodds.com. Spreads are collected by Sunshine Forecast as close as practicable to game time.

- Games played in alternate locations (such as the NFL International Series, Buffalo’s Toronto home games and temporary home field relocations) were factored in to this analysis as best as possible. 


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