CLEVELAND (AP) — The New Orleans Saints will never miss their beloved, climate-controlled Superdome more than on Saturday.
Baby, it’s going to be cold outside.
A “bomb cyclone” event is expected to drop temperatures into single digits at kickoff in Cleveland. With gusts exceeding 50 mph off Lake Erie, the wind chill will plunge way below zero as the Saints (5-9) and Browns (6-8) try to keep their slim playoff hopes intact in a simultaneous test of survival.
Huddles won’t be reserved for play calls.
The frigid forecast forced the Saints to travel to Cleveland one day early, which will allow them extra time to acclimate before taking the field at FirstEnergy Stadium. Even then, it’s going to be challenging in polar conditions.
It’s a physical game. In the cold, it’s also a mind game.
“I’m ready for it, man,” Saints safety Tyrann Mathieu said. “It’s really all mental.”
Not entirely, but New Orleans coach Dennis Allen did his best to downplay the elements. He doesn’t want any of his players overreacting or overdressing.
“It’s going to be cold for everybody,” he said. “Let’s don’t make too big a deal about it. Let’s go play a game and let’s go try to win, but yet there’s been a lot of advancement in warm-weather gear and the last thing I want is somebody out there looking like the damn Stay Puft Marshmallow Man.”
Even for the Browns, who have played their share of games in biting cold inside FirstEnergy Stadium, this won’t be easy.
Quarterback Deshaun Watson couldn’t pinpoint the coldest game he’s played in, assuming it may have been an Atlantic Coast Conference championship game while he was at Clemson. He’s not going to forget his second start in Cleveland.
“This is definitely going to be the coldest for sure,” he said.
It will be Watson’s fourth start since returning from an 11-game suspension for sexual misconduct allegations. He is 2-1 so far, and his accuracy has improved each week, along with a better grasp of coach Kevin Stefanski’s offense.
The Browns’ playoff hopes are remote — less than 1% — so the final three games are as much about Watson’s development and growth with Stefanski and getting ready for 2023 as a postseason push.
This also will be a chance for Watson to gain invaluable experience playing in conditions he could face down the road if the Browns, and this is their plan, become a Super Bowl contender and host playoff games.
Watson handled chilly conditions a week ago against Baltimore, but they weren’t anything like what he’ll deal with on Christmas Eve — wind, snow, finger-numbing temperatures. Football in Cleveland.
The cold’s not for everyone, but Browns star defensive end Myles Garrett said there’s no point in complaining about it.
“Whatever we have to play in, strap up, put your extra sleeves on, wear your leggings and whatever you have to do,” he said. “We can’t be worried about that. You have an opponent ahead, and you have to go 1-0.”
The Browns cut ties with wide receiver Jarvis Landry in the offseason. He’s still deeply connected to Cleveland.
Now with the Saints, Landry, who will miss the game with an ankle injury, made a major impact during four seasons with the Browns. Several of his former teammates credit him for helping transform a moribund franchise that went 0-16 before his arrival.
“He was a great player, great teammate,” said Pro Bowl running back Nick Chubb. “We all loved him. Jarvis taught me a lot. I came here as a young rookie and he was Jarvis Landry, just on the field, off the field, everything.
“He was a big part of me being who I am in football.”
Home hasn’t been sweet for Browns rookie kicker Cade York.
The fourth-round draft pick missed two more field-goal attempts at FirstEnergy Stadium last week, making him 9 of 15 on the Browns’ field. York made two kicks in a 13-3 win over Baltimore, but he badly pulled a 38-yarder left and pushed a 46-yarder right.
In fairness to York, the Ravens’ great kicker, Justin Tucker, missed a try and had one blocked.
Still, the Browns are expecting York to be better.
“He knows it’s time to adjust full bore now,” special teams coordinator Mike Priefer said. “We have 14 games under our belt. He has kicked enough games in our stadium and he has kicked enough games in the NFL, now it is time for him to show up for us on a more consistent basis.”
The Saints offensive line took a big hit this week when starting right guard Cesar Ruiz was placed on injured reserve.
A 2020 first-round draft choice, Ruiz was diagnosed with a Lisfranc foot injury and may need surgery. He hadn’t missed a snap and made 31 consecutive starts before experiencing pain in last weekend’s win over Atlanta.
With Ruiz out, the Saints are exploring some options up front, including sliding regular starting left tackle James Hurst to guard and starting rookie Trevor Penning at tackle.
While stopping the run was a hallmark of Allen’s defenses during much of his six-year stint as a coordinator under now-retired coach Sean Payton, there’s been some slippage lately on that front in Allen’s first season as head coach.
The Saints have yielded at least 148 yards rushing in four of their past six games, giving up a season-worst 231 against Atlanta.
Now, as the Saints prepare to deal with Chubb, who has 1,252 yards, the run defense is “an area we’ve got to improve on,” said Allen, who had high place for Cleveland’s Pro Bowl back.
“A very instinctive runner,” he said. “He’s a big runner, runs with power, yet he’s also got speed to break the long one. So, when he’s able to get his pads going downhill, he’s a load to have to deal with.”