- Mike Sando, NFL Insider
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The gloves came off and the earplugs went in when ESPN.com sought to identify the toughest venue in the NFL.
The gloves then went right back on, the better to endure the frigid temperatures associated with the No. 1 stadium on our list.
Lambeau Field, home to the Ice Bowl, the Frozen Tundra and even a trend-setting Leap, shrugged off an icy stare from AFC East blogger Tim Graham and a cold shoulder from the NFC North's own Kevin Seifert to emerge as the toughest venue for visiting teams. Four of the six other ESPN.com NFL bloggers ranked Lambeau first on their ballots, lifting the Green Bay Packers' hallowed home over Pittsburgh's Heinz Field for the top spot.
Seattle's Qwest Field, where opponents have committed a league-high 104 false starts since 2005, was third. Outdoor venues swept the first five spots and took eight of the top 10. Fifteen venues drew at least one vote.
New Orleans' Superdome was the highest-ranked indoor venue, coming in at No. 6. Minnesota's Metrodome, ranked eighth, trailed only Qwest in opponents' false starts over the past six seasons.
This subject stirred plenty of debate. On the surface, Lambeau didn't seem to need much defending.
"Lambeau Field has the perfect mix of history and the modern feel, while most stadiums are one or the other," AFC North blogger James Walker said after listing Lambeau atop his ballot. "You can feel the ghosts there. The weather makes it tough. And, as with Heinz Field, the local fans do not sell their tickets. Opposing fans do not take over that stadium."
The AFC East's Graham was not impressed. He ranked Lambeau ninth on his ballot. Even the NFC North's Seifert found three venues more daunting (Qwest, Heinz and the Superdome).
"I distinctly remember a mediocre Miami Dolphins squad traveling a long way to beat the Packers at Lambeau last season," Graham said. "The Packers have gotten lit up at home a few times the past three years despite having very good talent. I guess I couldn't get past that."
Miami, Minnesota, Cincinnati, Houston, Carolina, Atlanta and Dallas have won at Lambeau over the past three seasons.
Graham ranked Kansas City's Arrowhead Stadium first.
"I realize the Chiefs have gotten destroyed at Arrowhead, too, but it's not the stadium's fault Kansas City has fielded poor rosters," Graham said.
Arrowhead ranked fourth overall, with Chicago's historic Soldier Field rounding out the top five. Both venues offer cold enough weather to freeze out visitors from southern climes. Ragged field conditions in Chicago are another concern.
"Every time I've covered a game there, it has been cold and miserable," NFC South blogger Pat Yasinskas said of the Bears' home. "Teams from the South hate that combination. Take the weather and throw in the legend of Halas, Butkus, Sayers and Payton, and that's an intimidating place to play."
Mile High mystique a memory
The old Mile High Stadium, a fixture in Denver from 1948 until 2001, might have placed first on such a list. The new one showed up on only four of eight ballots to rank 12th.
"The magic has left," wrote AFC West blogger Bill Williamson, who ranked Lambeau first and Arrowhead fourth but did not rank Mile High at all. "It's strange because the air is just as thin as it used to be, but the Broncos have lost their home-field edge. This is a team that lost at home by 45 points last year. It doesn’t belong anywhere near this list right now."
Of course, stadiums and fan bases cannot win games by themselves. Roster strength plays a critical role in maximizing whatever advantages a venue has to offer. Remove Peyton Manning from Indianapolis, and suddenly Lucas Oil Stadium, which peaked at No. 2 on Graham's ballot and finished 11th overall, becomes considerably more inhabitable for visitors.
"It's an excellent place to watch a game, for sure," AFC South blogger Paul Kuharsky said. "But the volume isn't akin to the RCA Dome and, of course, the weather isn't a factor. The annoying shadows on the occasions the roof is open don't seem to bother players like they do viewers."
Kuharsky did not list Lucas Oil or any AFC South venue among his top 10.
Talking venues, not rosters
Kuharsky ranked the Oakland Coliseum second even though the Raiders regularly endure local television blackouts. He covered the team for the Oakland Tribune in 1995, the Raiders' first year back in the Bay Area from Los Angeles.
"Empty seats and local blackouts aren't what opponents are thinking of when sauced-up fans with spikes through their heads are hovering close behind the visitors bench," he explained.
The NFC East's Dan Graziano adopted a similar line of reasoning. He ranked Oakland sixth while handing his No. 1 vote to Ralph Wilson Stadium in Buffalo, where the Bills' poor talent has left the locals without cover. No other panelist ranked Buffalo in the top 10.
"I've never been colder in my life than when I was at that stadium," Graziano said. "It's cold, windy and nasty. I've always felt that people who succeed there as passers, punters and kickers should be rated higher because of the conditions they must overcome to do so."
Graziano's reasoning makes sense.
"Without speaking for anyone else, my guess is that this place is easy to forget in a survey like this because the Bills have been so irrelevant for so long," he said. "I personally did not factor in the home team in my choices because I think it's a variable. Right now, the toughest place is Gillette Stadium because the Patriots have been so great. But if the Pats stink for the next five years, no way that place makes the 2016 list. But that frigid old dump in Buffalo will still be a miserably unpleasant venue that players will hate to visit."
Qwest Field, built to replace the Kingdome beginning with the 2002 season, has quickly established itself as one of the NFL's most feared stadiums. It joined Lambeau and Heinz as the only venues to receive mention on every ballot.
The New York Giants famously committed 11 false-start penalties there in a 2005 game. Upon returning a year later, the Giants asked the NFL to consider whether the Seahawks were piping in noise artificially. They then committed three false starts in the first quarter of the rematch, falling behind 35-3 at halftime. Last season, local seismologists recorded activity coinciding with Marshawn Lynch's unforgettable 67-yard touchdown run there.
While Seifert and I ranked Qwest atop our ballots, the AFC West's Williamson ranked it only 10th.
"I respect Qwest Field and the '12th Man' aura,'" Williamson said. "It's a fun atmosphere, but I think there are tougher spots to play in the NFL. I'd like to see Seattle win more games and build more of a tradition at the field before I rank it as elite."