Home, cold, home: Packers hope for advantage
GREEN BAY The Green Bay Packers have the Minnesota Vikings right where they want them.
Or do they?
The Vikings (10-6) visit Lambeau Field for Saturday night's NFC wild card, and no place in the NFL has been tougher to play over the last three years. Green Bay (11-5) has won all but two of its last 28 regular-season home games, and its 22 home wins since the start of the 2010 season are one better than both New England and Baltimore.
But Lambeau hasn't been quite so fearsome in the postseason lately, with the Packers losing their last two home playoff games (both to the New York Giants) and three of their last four.
In fact, all four of the Packers' losses in home playoff games have come in the last six played at Lambeau.
"Home-field advantage, I know statistically it may not be what it used to be, but to me there's no place better to play than at Lambeau Field. I love everything about it," Packers coach Mike McCarthy said. "Definitely we feel it's an advantage to have our crowd behind us, the surface that we play on. … It will be a great atmosphere."
Few teams have better fan bases than the Packers, the only publicly owned team in professional sports. To be from Wisconsin is to be a Packers fan, and loyalty has nothing to do with the won-loss record. The entire state comes to a standstill on Sunday afternoons, and Lambeau has been sold out since 1960 (the only blackouts in Green Bay have to do with electricity). Parents put their children on the waiting list for season tickets when they're born in hopes they'll get them by their 40th birthday, and Wisconsin kids talk about Aaron, B.J., Clay and Charles as if they're their best buddies at school.
"I'd rather be at home, I think anybody would," Clay Matthews said Wednesday. "I mean, that's what you play for … (to) make teams come into your backyard. Especially with us. We like to think living in this environment, playing in this environment, it plays to us well."
Weather is behind much of the Green Bay advantage, to say nothing of its mystique.
Buffalo may have more snow, and the wind off Lake Michigan makes for some downright nasty conditions at Soldier Field. But the average temperature in Green Bay doesn't crack the freezing mark from December through February, and the thought of the Ice Bowl creeps into the minds of every opponent when they see a winter game at Lambeau on the schedule.
Temperature at kickoff for that 1967 NFL championship was 13 below, with a wind chill of minus-46. It was so cold the officials' whistles froze, and one fan died of exposure.
"You learn to live with it," said Matthews, who endured quite a shock when he arrived in Green Bay from sunny southern California. "You can't avoid the elements out here."
Saturday's game will feel like a heat wave by comparison to the Ice Bowl, with lows in the mid-teens, a wind chill near zero. And the weather in Minnesota is equally brutal, though the Vikings play indoors.
But feeling your nostrils freeze as you sprint to and from your car is a lot different than spending 3˝ hours in mind-numbing, finger-freezing cold on a regular basis.
"It's something that you have to be prepared for mentally," said Vikings quarterback Christian Ponder, who grew up in Texas and played at Florida State. "I don't know how well you can prepare for it."
And yet, the Packers haven't done much with that home-field advantage recently.
It was Atlanta—a Southern team!—that gave Green Bay its first home playoff loss, in the 2002 NFC wild card. Two years later, the Vikings beat the Packers at Lambeau in their only other playoff matchup.
The Giants were more fit for the "Frozen Tundra" in the 2007 NFC Championship, beating the Packers in overtime in the second-coldest game at Lambeau Field. Last year, New York knocked the top-seeded Packers out at home.
Oh, and two years ago, when Green Bay won the Super Bowl? The Packers did it on the road, playing the entire postseason away from Lambeau Field.
"I'm not opposed to playing here. Obviously with our crowd and our fans, that's what we want as a team," Greg Jennings said. "But going on the road, being isolated away from everyone, I think the focus level and the sense of urgency is just a little tad higher. Because you're dependent on your teammate. You travel, you're in a hotel, you're all together. It's you guys against everyone else outside of that hotel. So it's a little different."
These aren't the same Packers that lost those other postseason games at Lambeau, either. Mike Sherman was coaching the Packers when they lost to Atlanta and Minnesota. That first loss to the Giants was Brett Favre's last game as a Packer.
"It hasn't worked out for us lately," Jennings said. "But it's a different year."