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Tara Sullivan

When weather and football collide, it represents the core of what we love about the game

When the Patriots and Bills played at Buffalo Dec. 6, the winds reached 50 miles per hour.Joshua Bessex/Associated Press

ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. — It was a typically droll zinger from Bill Belichick, a one-liner coming near the end of a relatively long answer about the weather conditions predicted for Saturday night’s playoff opener in Buffalo.

“I’m more worried about the Bills than the weather,” Belichick deadpanned. “The Bills are what we have to focus on and beat. The weather is the weather.”

And football is football. But when they collide on the field with the highest of stakes amid the lowest of temperatures, the result evokes the oldest of old school football lore. As if representing the twin strands of the game’s very DNA, the core of what we love about football at its most basic and challenging level.


Across the long history of the NFL, cold-weather games, especially those in the postseason, sit among the most revered and memorable. Deservedly so.

I love cold-weather games. Who doesn’t?

With full sympathy to the players and coaches actually braving the elements, with full acknowledgment that my cold-weather game experience has been limited to a warm couch at home, a heated press box at games, and only the occasional need to walk outside, there’s just something about the aura of a game played in sub-zero temperatures that makes it extra special.

These games have three combatants — a team on one sideline, a team on the other sideline, and then the elements. Yet as much as the teams can prepare game plans, script their play calls and depend on familiarity that, for fellow AFC East foes New England and Buffalo, is especially present in this third meeting of the season, there is no controlling the weather. It is a great equalizer, conditions that keep the game honest and bring it back to its keep-it-on-the-ground, hit-’em-hard, run-first roots.

But there is a price for that brand of football — just listen to former NFL defensive lineman Marcus Spears, who described it this way on ESPN: “It’s just psychological, man. When you play in this type of weather, every hit feels like you’re getting electrocuted. That’s what it feels like, with your body telling you you are the stupidest human being on earth for doing what you are doing right now.”


The difficulty is obvious. Players will do anything to stay warm, from heated benches, large overcoats, and layering clothing. There are other, less obvious tricks — and no, I’m not even going there with Bart Scott — like thin layers of Vaseline applied to the skin to trap heat in.

Those are fine in “normal” cold games. The frigid temperatures predicted for Saturday night could put it among the coldest games on record, setting it apart for the type of sub-freezing conditions that turn the football into a boulder, hard and slick and difficult to hold. Throwing is hard, hitting hurts more, feeling disappears, and the brain has to fight just to concentrate.

Still, players seem to savor it.

“It’s mental — just like it’s mental to workout in the heat in the offseason,” veteran offensive tackle Trent Brown said. “At the end of the day, it’s football. It’s cold.”

Cold and memorable. Some of the Patriots’ greatest memories came in cold weather, including the Tuck Rule game that might be famous most for the non-fumble that allowed Tom Brady to keep on playing, but is just as impressive for the two kicks Adam Vinatieri made in swirling snow. One to tie the score in the final seconds, the other to win it in overtime, both leaving Belichick to call them two of the best, clutchest kicks he’s ever witnessed.


The weather makes them better. Before the Giants could upend the Patriots perfect season in the Super Bowl of the 2007 season, they had to beat the Packers in Green Bay in the NFC Championship Game. That game, played in minus-4 conditions that felt like minus-24, left then-coach Tom Coughlin with a permanent red stripe on his wind-stained cheeks. Of all the moments players remember most from that game, the cups of hot chicken soup at halftime are always among them.

From the Ice Bowl to the Tuck Rule, from the earlier season Pats-Bills game played amid 50-mile-per-hour winds to this wild-card contest, the weather is a welcome foe. Every yard gained will be a win against the elements.

“As one of the older guys, I’ve played in quite a few of these games that you don’t want to be outside in,” Patriots veteran safety Devin McCourty said. “You go out there and try to have fun. And I’ll tell you, it’s a lot more fun to win in the cold weather.”

Tara Sullivan is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at tara.sullivan@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @Globe_Tara.