The Super Bowl at the Meadowlands in February is not just a matchup between two teams, but a battle between humans and the elements. The cold temperatures for this Super Bowl might not be polar-vortex-like temperatures, but they will certainly change the dynamic of the game in several ways compared to the warmer temperatures of Super Bowl games played indoors or in more temperate cities. Let's see how cold temperatures have changed the game in the past and then find out why.
According to our good friends at Advanced NFL Stats, the statistics say that at lower temperatures, field goals are slightly less accurate at longer distances, and don't travel as far. The difference isn't that sizable, just a few yards. But in these high-stake games a few yards can be the difference between getting a ring or not. So, field goals will be something to watch during the Super Bowl.
This brings up the question, why is the cold interfering with the kick?
At cold temperatures, the ball is less bouncy. The football is constructed from leather and rubber that acts like a trampoline when you kick it. As the temperature changes and gets colder, that trampoline effect diminishes. This effect is called the coefficient of restitution, which decreases with the cold. The ball won't bounce off the foot as it would in warmer temperatures, which makes life harder for kickers.
Now, if you and your friends were playing a pick up game on a cold day in the park, you might have to content with something else. At very cold temperatures, the ball will feel under-inflated. The air pressure inside of the ball is proportional to the temperature: The lower the temperature the lower the pressure. As the temperature gets colder, the air molecules inside move less and collide less with the inside of the ball. So, the ball will be slightly smaller and feel under-inflated.
However, the NFL compensates for this by inflating the ball to a pre-determined pressure, so under-inflation won't be a factor. But, the NFL can't do anything to mitigate the trampoline effect changing with the cold.
So, what else happens when the temperatures are really cold?
Well occasionally you might see a helmet chip or crack. The plastic shell changes and becomes less pliable. This doesn't just happen on the gridiron. Ask folks in Minnesota. When the temperature drops, their car bumpers crack when they collide instead of giving a bit. Minor collisions that would cause a fender bender on a warm day cause the bumper to break on a cold day. The plastic changes from being rubbery to brittle. So, if this was the Ice Bowl part 2, you might see a cracked helmet during the game.
Usually plastics are flexible. When you drop an unopened soda bottle on the floor, you usually aren't worried because the bottle will bounce. The bottle is made of plastic, which has molecules that are long like spaghetti. The spaghetti strands are able to slide past each other, which makes the Coke bottle flexible. But things change when the temperature drops. The spaghetti strands have a harder time getting passed each other and together they act like a hard solid. Here the material acts like a brittle material and can crack. But, this is a rare thing that only happens at extremely frigid temperatures. (It should be noted that plastics return to being rubbery when they warm up again. This is not a permanent change.)
What is clear is that Jack Frost will be a mighty contender for these NFL players during the Super Bowl. Everything will change slightly from the ball to the helmet as well as the players themselves. There is no doubt that this game will be exciting and for many reasons. The Super Bowl will be more than a battle between the Broncos and the Seahawks, but a battle of how players beat the cold.
Learn more about the science behind football in the new title from Random House called Newton's Football.