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Why playoff dome teams struggle

Wintry elements are one of the highlights of the NFL playoffs: snowflakes flittering across the field or giant puffs of condensed breath billowing from heaving behemoths lend a cinematic drama to January football.

But, barring a pair of AFC upsets this weekend, we'll have to wait a year to witness bone-chilling football again, as a climate-controlled bit of history unfolds Saturday and Sunday: there will be three dome games in the same playoff weekend for the first time ever.

It brings up a perfect opportunity to address one of the most curious phenomena in football: the historic struggles of dome teams in the playoffs.

The basics are this: home teams have gone 234-110 in the playoffs since the AFL merger. That's a rock-solid .680 winning percentage.

Dome teams, meanwhile, are 27-15 (.642), including last week's indoor wins by the Cardinals and Cowboys.

But that number is very misleading: the prolific statistical oddity that is Kurt Warner is 7-0 at home in his domes in St. Louis and Arizona. The rest of the indoor quarterbacks and indoor teams of the world have gone just 20-15 (.571) in their very own home arenas.

That .571 is far below the standards for home teams in the playoffs -- especially when you consider that teams get home games in the playoffs because they were better than their visitors in the regular season.

Dome teams simply underperform in the playoffs, in some cases badly. And it's been even worse for this week's three home-dome teams. The Colts (4-3), Vikings (5-4) and Saints (2-3) are a combined 11-10 at home in their domes during the playoffs -- far below the success rate of your average home team.

All three, meanwhile, are famed for their postseason failures.

The Vikings reached four Super Bowls back when they played outdoors at the old Met. They've reached zero Super Bowls since moving indoors in 1982 and they're just 5-4 in home playoff games over that period.

The Colts won a record 115 regular-season games over the past decade. But they're perhaps the greatest playoff underachievers in history. Indy is just 7-8 in the playoffs in the Peyton Manning era, including a humble 4-3 home record (the Colts did not host a playoff game in Indianapolis before Manning's arrival). However, the 2006 Colts do enjoy the distinction of being one of two dome teams (with Warner's 1999 Rams) to win a Super Bowl.

The Saints, meanwhile, have historically been one of the worst teams in the NFL. Their battle against the Cardinals on Saturday is just the ninth playoff game in franchise history. They've won just two of those previous eight games, with a 2-3 mark at home in the Superdome.

It's not a lot of data, but in all these cases these teams underperform the average NFL club in the playoffs, both at home in their domes and on the road.

Domes, to put another way, seem to be an organizational handicap come playoff time. This handicap manifests itself in three different ways:

1) Dome teams simply do not deal well with the wintry elements when they go outdoors. This is a fairly widely held opinion. And the data certainly supports this opinion. The Vikings, Colts and Saints are a combined 8-21 (.276) in road playoff games since they moved their home games indoors; and just 7-19 (.269) in road playoff games outdoors. In each case, they perform worse than the typical road team in the playoffs.

The Colts, for example, lost a pair of notable wintry games to the Patriots in the 2003 and 2004 playoffs. But those were very good Patriots teams. Their worst outing was a humiliating 41-0 loss to a very average 9-7 Jets team in the 2002 playoffs on a chilly 27-degree day at the Meadowlands.

2) More interestingly, outdoor teams seem to blossom when they experience the climate-controlled conditions of the dome. The Vikings, Colts and Saints are just 8-9 at home in the playoffs against outdoor teams.

In the 1992 postseason, for example, the 11-5 Vikings lost badly at home, 24-7, to the 9-7 Redskins; in the 1994 postseason, the 10-6 Vikings lost badly at home, 35-18, to a 9-7 Bears teams that was one of the worst ever to reach the playoffs (-36 scoring differential).

The Colts have suffered several losses to supposedly inferior outdoor teams at home in their dome. Most notably, the 11-5 Steelers came in out of the cold and punched out the 14-2 Colts in the 2005 playoffs. That Colts team flirted with an undefeated season, much like this year's team, but failed to win a single playoff game.

3) Cold-weather teams that build domes take away a huge organizational advantage: Mother Nature. The cold-weather Packers did not suffer a single home playoff loss from 1939 through 2001, before their streak was ended (ironically) by the Falcons, a warm-weather dome team.

The cold-weather Patriots had not lost a home playoff game since 1978 before the Ravens beat them last week.

The Vikings, meanwhile, were consistently one of the NFL's most dominant teams and a four-time conference champ when they played outdoors. They went 7-3 in home playoff games at the old Met, probably the chilliest arena in American sports. They're just 5-4 since moving indoors and have never been back to the Super Bowl.

What's it all mean?

The Vikings and Saints seem to have little to worry about this weekend, beyond the typical concerns of every playoff team: they host the Cowboys and Cardinals, respectively, two teams in warm-weather cities that play in arenas with retractable roofs. That's a wash.

But Colts fans should certainly be concerned.

Indianapolis has gone an entire month since the last time it tried to win a game -- the 35-31 win over Jacksonville on Dec. 17. Now it hosts the Ravens on Saturday night, a team that just punched out New England on the road, during a chilly afternoon in Foxboro, ending a whole slew of home win streaks for the Patriots in the process.

It will be the first indoor playoff game in the history of the Baltimore franchise. And if the history of other franchises is any indication, the Ravens might find the cozy, climate-controlled dome a very nice place to visit in January.

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