Do running teams really fare better in cold weather below zero

Do running teams really fare better in the cold?

1/5/14 in NFL   |   droth   |   127 respect

Throughout the week, the biggest story leading up to the Packers-49ers Wild Card game has been the weather. Experts have predicted weather near or below zero at Lambeau for today's contest while football fans across the country have been getting geared up for a hard-nosed, old-school type of game. 

Dec 22, 2013; Green Bay, WI, USA; Green Bay Packers running back James Starks (44) during the game against the Pittsburgh Steelers at Lambeau Field.  Pittsburgh won 38-31.  Mandatory Credit: Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY SportsMost people assume that cold, nasty weather is more conducive to that old-school style of play. The big guys up front and a powerful running game are necessary to win a freezing game, right? Well, before penciling my Niners into the next round because they're the more physical, better running team, I thought I'd take a look back through NFL history to see if, in fact, that assumption holds water.

In order to get to the bottom of this, I used Pro-football-reference.com's lovely play index tool and picked out every game that's been played outdoors in 0-degree weather or below.  There have been a total of 18 such games, according to Pro-football-reference, including five in the playoffs.

Here's some of what I found:
 
  • Home teams are 13-5 when the weather drops to zero or lower. But this home-field advantage disappears in the playoffs, where home teams hold just a 3-2 advantage.
 
  • Teams that run the ball more don't necessarily have an advantage. In fact, in 7 of the 13 regular season games that took place in temperatures at or below zero, the losing team has finished the year with more rushing attempts. In the playoffs, which is a much smaller sample size, the more run-heavy team is 3-2. Those two losses came from two top-3 Rushing Attempt teams: the 67-68 Cowboys and the 95-96 Chiefs, meaning that simply running the ball a lot doesn't make you a good cold weather team.
 
  • Teams that run the ball more effectively, however, do have a significant advantage. Teams with a better Y/A ranking at the season's end are 10-3 in these games and 13-5 including the playoffs. 

So what does that mean for this afternoon's showdown?

As expected, the 49ers do run the ball more, ranking 3rd in the NFL in both attempts and yards. But, interestingly, the Packers have the advantage in yards per attempt, ranking 4th while the 49ers come in at 11th in the NFL.

So according to my relatively small sample size, the Packers seems to have the uppers hand. They're the home team and the team with a better Y/A ranking. Uh oh.

But the Packers D makes things a bit more interesting. They're 29th in the NFL in opponents Y/A, meaning the 49ers should be able to move the ball on the ground. Also, if Eddie Lacy's ankle injury does anything to limit him, all of those season rankings may go out the window.

As usual, the numbers have shed some light on what we can expect to see, but there are still a lot of variables in this game. I guess we'll have to tune in and see how it goes.
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