One mile is 5,280 feet in distance. That just happens to be the exact elevation of the city of Denver where Empower Field at Mile High sets the stage for Broncos home games. The human body performs differently at different elevations and it has the ability to adapt to these changes, but those adaptations take time to occur.
According to varying sources, it can take between nine and 18 days to fully acclimate to Denver’s elevation when coming from a lower elevation. Because the rigorous NFL schedule sends teams from place to place almost weekly, it’s impossible for any team other than the Denver Broncos to remain fully acclimated to such a high elevation.
This adaptation affects the body on a biological level. The kidneys produce higher amounts of a hormone called erythropoietin, which leads to increased red blood cell production, which carry oxygen to the muscles. Staying hydrated during the acclimatization process is also crucial to helping the body adjust more efficiently.
After successful acclimatization, one who returns to a lower elevation will still reap the benefits of the increased red blood cell count for up to two weeks. This gives the Denver Broncos players an additional advantage even when they play away from Mile High Stadium.
This is the reason why Lance Armstrong (Aspen, CO) and the United States Olympic Committee (Colorado Springs, CO) both maintain training facilities in the region. It’s why the Colorado Avalanche and Denver Nuggets both employ frantic, fast-paced styles of play in order to wear down their un-acclimated opponents.
It’s hard, even for the greatest to ever play, to perform at their expected high levels in the Mile High City. The only NFL team Tom Brady has a career losing record to is the Denver Broncos (8-9). Besides the one loss to Peyton Manning, the others have come against lesser quarterbacks including Brian Griese, Jake Plummer, Kyle Orton, and Brock Osweiler. Something tells me those losses have more to do with the stadium than with the personel.
Another former Patriot Tedy Bruschi did not sugar coat Mile High’s effect on his ability to perform at a high level. “It’s real,” the Hall of Famer said, “It affects you. The oxygen you’re breathing into your muscles isn’t the same. You feel yourself gasping.”
Lebron James, one of the most conditioned athletes in the world, even conceded how difficult it is to play in Denver. “This is a tough (place) to play in,” James told NBA.com in 2013. “This altitude is nothing to play with.”
Former Broncos head coach from 2011 to 2014, John Fox, was adamant about his team’s home field edge. “It’s probably the best home-field advantage in the NFL,” Fox told DenverBroncos.com in 2013. “That’s why I think our home record is so good.”
That home record, to which Fox refers, is seventh best in the NFL since 2000 at 107-58. Only the Patriots, Ravens, Packers, Steelers, Colts, and Seahawks have posted better home records over the past twenty years. Over the same period of time, the Saints, who are known for their strong home field advantage, have only the 11th best home record at 98-68.
The players who have benefitted by suiting up for Denver tend to agree. “It is a tremendous psychological advantage,” Hall of Fame cornerback Champ Bailey said. “People come in thinking about the weather, the altitude. If you’re worried about something, it really weighs on you. At Mile High, people psych themselves out.”
The psychological advantage can not be minimized, and the Denver Broncos have gone to not so subtle lengths to make sure their opponents take note.
Broncos make sure the visiting teams know they are playing at a high elevation #mindgames pic.twitter.com/qDVmXWALQZ— Ben Volin (@BenVolin) December 18, 2016
The awareness of Denver’s elevation has even spurred some players to alter their preparation before heading to Mile High. Former Carolina Panthers running back, Jonathan Stewart, began training with an oxygen deprivation mask to prepare his lungs for a trip to Denver.
“What it does for me is it just trains your recovery of breath,” said Stewart. “When you’re tired, usually you just need to learn how to regroup. Using the mask last year and coming into this year has definitely helped with going into different plays, whether it’s on a long drive or a long run just being able to regroup and go to the next play.”
Another interesting biological factor that must be accounted for is the presence of sickle cell anemia in any of the athletes playing at higher elevations. Former Washington and Pittsburgh Steelers cornerback, Ryan Clark, almost died following a 2007 game at Mile High Stadium.
After playing there in 2005 for Washington, Clark experienced abdominal pain, but it subsided quickly enough for him, and sadly his doctors, to dismiss it. But two years later, when he returned as a Steeler, Clark was severely ill for over a month.
It was discovered that his being a carrier of the sickle cell trait affected his red blood cells’ ability to bring oxygen to his muscles, which caused tissue death in both his spleen and gallbladder. Both organs had to be surgically removed, and Clark made a full recovery, but would never play at Mile High again out of an abundance of caution.
Due to Hippa and player health privacy standards, I can’t research whether or not any Saints players have sickle cell anemia or have the carrier trait. According to the CDC, one in 13 African-Americans have the sickle cell trait, similar to Ryan Clark. In a league where 70% of the players are African-American, this important contraindication must be accounted for in order to keep players safe.
It’s not all doom and gloom for every visiting team player, however. Two special teams positions, in particular, actually gain a similar advantage when they travel to Mile High. Because the air is thinner at that elevation, the football can travel faster and farther given the same energy output at the onset.
Kickers and punters gain the edge when performing their duties at Empower Field. Saints’ kicker Tom Dempsey’s 1970 record-setting field goal kick of 63 yards stood untouched until the Broncos’ Jason Elam tied it in 1998. Sebastian Janikowski would also tie the record in the same stadium as Elam in 2011. Matt Prater, also a former Bronco broke Dempsey’s long-standing record in 2013 with a 64 yard field goal at, you guessed it, Empower Field at Mile High.
The longest punt in NFL history also occurred at Mile High in 1969 when the Jets’ Steve O’Neal blasted a punt which travelled 75 yards through the air eventually gaining 98 yards. Will Lutz and Thomas Morstead could very well have career days this Sunday.
Over a 26 year, five-game losing streak, the Saints haven’t beaten the Denver Broncos since 1994. Although many pundits on ESPN choose the Saints to win, it should be noted that even the odds in Las Vegas are typically adjusted to account for the Broncos’ home field advantage.
“It’s no secret that the Broncos have a greater home-field edge than most because of the altitude,” SportsBetting.com odds consultant Scott Cooley said. “When factoring in home-field advantage with the betting line, the majority of teams received a standard three points. With the Broncos, you’re generally looking at 4-5 points due to the altitude.”
Though the Saints are favored at -6, the Saints’ long-term history at Mile High must be given equal weight against their current seven game win streak. Despite seeming more talented and deep across the board, the Saints will have a Mile High hurdle to jump if they are going to end a nearly 30 year losing streak to a team that seems to take the wind out of the sails of nearly every opponent they face at their home field.
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