As the divisional round of the N.F.L. playoffs begins on Saturday, the teams with the highly coveted home-field advantage will enjoy all the typical luxuries of playing at home, including sleeping in their own beds and the promise of loud fans cheering for them. The teams that play in colder climates — including Kansas City, Philadelphia and Buffalo — have another advantage: knowing not to stand near the sideline heaters for too long.
“You have layers of stuff on, so you can’t really feel the direct heat, but then you smell something,” said Ike Boettger, an offensive lineman for the Bills. “You just smell that burning cloth smell and you know that somebody got a little too close.”
When the temperature drops late in the N.F.L. season, minor sideline fires and singed skin have become rites of passages. For some players, the smell of burned cotton, the sight of melted cleats and the occasional seared body part are synonymous with winter football.
“I mean, if you didn’t do that, you didn’t play football in cold weather,” said Scott Chandler, a retired tight end who spent nearly five seasons with the Bills after starting his N.F.L. career in sunny San Diego. “Just like little kids find out by touching the stove that it’s hot, you got to learn the same way as football players.”
The fires extend past the players. Last January, a Falcons public relations staff member, Gaby Moran, was on the sideline for a game against the Bills in Orchard Park, N.Y. With windy conditions and snow in the air, and the temperature in the 20s, another Falcons employee yelled to Moran that she had caught on fire.
Moran said she looked down to find the bottom of her jacket ablaze, ignited by the giant heater she had been standing near to stay warm. “We just started patting the bottom,” Moran said. “I completely forgot to stop, drop and roll.” A trail of feathers from her damaged jacket flew as she ran to the locker room to fetch a new one.
For many players, seeing members of the team’s medical or communications staff also suffer the wrath of the sideline heaters often prompts laughter and makes the cold more bearable.
“That was always my favorite,” said Lee Smith, a retired tight end who played 10 seasons in Buffalo, Atlanta, and Oakland. “The doctors and stuff over there with the heater; I hope all the doctors’ khakis get burned.”
The heaters, of course, aren’t the only place for players to seek warmth, though they might do the job the quickest. Sideline benches are often heated with slots for players’ hands and feet. There are also helmet warmers, hand warmers like those available at your local gas station and oversized jackets delivered quickly by the team staff as players come off the field.
Many linemen also try to stay warm by staying on the field during timeouts and other breaks, huddling together in something similar to a pyramid formation with players rotating to face the brunt of the wind. Some players lather themselves in Vaseline or weather guard cream and wear latex gloves designed for doctors and nurses underneath their football gloves.
Some players purposefully wear less when the temperatures plummet, at least long enough to show off. Before the Seattle Seahawks’ game against Kansas City in December, Seahawks receiver DK Metcalf told reporters he didn’t care about the cold and might come out shirtless. On game day, he fulfilled that promise with some teammates as they took the field for warm-ups, despite temperatures under 12 degrees (and ample face and head coverings).
The no shirt or no sleeves move in the cold is often seen as a way to display toughness. Some players see the strategy as nonsensical.
“I’m going to show my toughness when I put my hands on you,” Smith said. “If I saw a defensive end out there in his swimming trunks before the game while it was snowing, that sure didn’t intimidate me; made me think that guy’s a goofball.”
Boettger, who played college football in frigid temperatures at the University of Iowa, remembers burning the inside of his helmet once by leaving it on a warmer for too long. So playing for the Bills wasn’t much of an adjustment.
The coldest game he said he ever played in happened in December in Chicago, when the temperature was below 10 degrees along with a 20 mile-an-hour wind. Boettger placed his helmet on a warmer that was not working that day, and when he tried to put it back on, the cushions on the inside were frozen.
Still, Boettger said he had always been a fan of cold weather games because they keep defenses from playing as fast as they would typically and make some opposing players uncomfortable.
“The best part about it is the big guys usually are fans of it and the small guys usually absolutely hate it because we got more built-in insulation,” said Boettger, who is listed at 6-foot-6, 236 pounds.
Ten of the N.F.L.’s 32 teams have domed or retractable roof stadiums. Each time a game is affected by significant snow or rain, questions arise about the merits of playing football outdoors. Earlier this season, the Bills’ game against the Cleveland Browns had to be moved from Buffalo to Detroit because of snow. (The Lions play in a dome.)
“It’s always been a part of the game,” said Smith, who is opposed to playing football indoors. “You could make the same argument for the South Florida heat. I promise you it’s harder to go from Buffalo to Miami than Miami to Buffalo.”
As teams build stadiums, many consider adding a dome so as to have more control of the climate on the field (and to make a stronger case for hosting major events like the Super Bowl). But not all teams are seeking to escape the cold. In 2026, the Bills plan to unveil a $1.4 billion stadium with no roof.
So don’t get too close to the heaters.