Several teams were pushing for playoff spots in Week 11, but mother nature was the real wild card. High winds and unpredictable rains influenced four games around the league and played a big part in determining how teams operated.
The Baltimore Ravens and Chicago Bears were most heavily impacted. Tornado warnings and swirling rains caused a near-two hour delay, with fans and teams trying to stay out of the storm's path. It caused offensive success to ebb and flow, as the clouds cleared and reappeared, influencing the game.
It was oddly beneficial for the Bears to start Josh McCown due to Jay Cutler's injury. Rogue gusts of wind routinely blew passes several feet away from their intended target, making deep-passing quarterbacks a liability. In the Bears' case, the question wasn't which quarterback is better, but rather who is better at throwing intermediate passes and keeping turnovers at a minimum. McCown throws a naturally tight spiral, even if he doesn't have the arm to make the throws Cutler can.
The ability to pass the ball effectively in those conditions made the difference that game. Rains decimated Solider Field, and Chicago was worse than the Ravens at generating pressure.
Flacco finished the game 17-for-31 with 162 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions. McCown posted a 19-for-31 line with 216 yards, one touchdown and no interceptions. The most notable stat for the signal callers linked to the wind and rain was the yards per attempt. Flacco's passes mustered just 5.2 yards per throw; McCown had 7.0 yards per attempt. The Bears do have a better group of receivers, but the backup's ability to throw medium-range bullets helped counter the weather effect. Chicago won, 23-20.
Orchard Park was hit with 24-mph winds during the New York Jets' upstate battle against the Buffalo Bills. The game's opening kickoff fell like a rock when the ball initially appeared as if it would carry well into the end zone, and weather influenced the kicking games for both teams.
Geno Smith was independently terrible, regardless of the wind, but the gusts did play a role. He had enough zip on a deep throw to Santonio Holmes, but the ball was caught in the wind and pulled back several yards. Holmes did an excellent job anticipating that the pass would be underthrown, adjusting and coming back to the ball to make the catch.
Ultimately, the Bills did a better job understanding the conditions. They asked E.J. Manuel to make smart short passes, and got a lot of luck on two touchdown catches. His second touchdown came on a deep throw to Marquise Goodwin, when the ball was caught by the wind and added distance to the pass, perfectly lofting it into the hands of the speedy receiver.
Special teams became a completely random event. Punts fell short or carried, causing the normally-reliable Brian Moorman to become flustered and fumble a snap. The wind made every stalled drive a roll of the dice.
Winds tend to be a problem in Pittsburgh due to the stadium's proximity to the water and open-ended design, but Sunday's game added another level. Halftime became a pivotal turning point, when the weather set in and winds blew across the length of the stadium. Everything went Pittsburgh's way. First half shanked punts became booming field-flipping plays. Matt McBriar punted the ball 70 yards with the wind at his back, while Detroit struggled with the conditions throughout the third quarter.
Wind and rain could have played a role in the decision to attempt a trick play rather than settle for three points in the fourth quarter. Detroit tried to sneak a run with punter Sean McLendon, rather than try a field goal that could have been blown wide.
It was a decision that sealed the Lions' defeat.
Managing the conditions is a common theme from the weekend, and the Steelers did it better than the Lions. High-powered passing in the first half became muted in the second, typified by Matthew Stafford's terrible attempts to throw through the rain after a potent first half that positioned the Lions to break records.
Ben Roethlisberger is presumably better accustomed than most to dealing with the Heinz Field weather, especially against a team used to playing inside a dome. The Steelers changed their offense to short passing and ball control, transitioning from the big play passing of the first half. One team adjusted, another didn't and this changed the game.
In January, a stormy, windy Week 11 will be remembered as just another week in the 2013 season, but these games raised interesting questions about how potential playoff teams can cope with weather conditions. It's not uncommon to see teams fail in the post-season because they can't adjust their game plan. This weekend, Detroit and Cincinnati in particular did poor jobs of coping with shifts in weather. For Chicago and Buffalo, two outdoor teams nestled along the Great Lakes, the wind and rain was just another adjustment.