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Steelers

Chargers, Cardinals fight time-zone travel woes in playoffs

| Thursday, Jan. 8, 2009

Jet-setting hasn't been kind to the Arizona Cardinals and San Diego Chargers.

The western-based teams combined to win just one of 10 games they played east of the Mississippi River this season. Now, both teams are scheduled for playoff games in the Eastern Time Zone.

The Carolina Panthers host the Cardinals on Saturday in Charlotte, N.C., and the Chargers play the Steelers on Sunday. Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt said history still may be on the side of his team.

"We played some games better than others on the East Coast," the former Steelers offensive coordinator told reporters this week. "We didn't win any of them. So, maybe we're due."

Traveling between the coasts may leave players with jet lag -- the sleep malaise familiar to travelers, said James Maas, a professor of psychology at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y. The sleep disruption associated with crossing multiple time zones can hurt focus or the ability to process information quickly while making players irritable or anxious.

Teams that travel west-to-east are at particular disadvantage, said Maas, the author of "Power Sleep." Seattle, San Francisco, San Diego, Oakland and Arizona finished a combined 3-18 in games played at least three time zones eastward, including the Chargers loss to the New Orleans Saints in London. Overall, road teams won 42 percent of games played this season.

"It's much more likely that the West Coast team is going to lose," Maas said in a telephone interview. "The research is very clear that when you fly west-to-east, which is against the biological clock, it's a much harder adjustment."

Teams traveling east-to-west can also have problems adjusting, said Maas, noting that the New York Jets lost four games on the West Coast this season.

The problems come from disruptions to the body's circadian rhythms, he said. People have natural periods of alertness and rest. When they cross multiple time zones, those periods stop lining up with the time of day. The greater the number of time zones crossed, the greater the disruption. Fatigue and sleep-loss exacerbate the problem.

Teams should travel at least three days early, said Maas, who has worked with basketball's Orlando Magic. Players should avoid alcohol and can use light to reset their bodies' rhythms.

Patrick O'Connor, a professor of kinesiology at the University of Georgia in Athens, said many athletes believe that jet lag adversely affects sports performance, though there's no consistent scientific evidence.

"A lot of what gets influenced if you're not sleeping well, or at the wrong time, is the ability to make decisions," O'Connor said in a telephone interview. "It might influence the coaches as much as anything. If they're not thinking straight, it could be detrimental to their teams' performance."

Teams have attempted to soften the affect of multi-time-zone travel this season. The New England Patriots packed four West Coast games into two, two-week stints, flying out and staying in San Jose for the week between each set of games. The Patriots won three of four.

The Cardinals, 3-21 on the East Coast since 2002, also consolidated travel for back-to-back Eastern Time Zone games, staying in Virginia between playing at Washington and the Jets. They still lost both games. In losses at Philadelphia, the Jets and New England, the Cardinals gave up a combined 151 points. They finished the regular season 9-7.

"We've taken enough trips east that we shouldn't be surprised about how we'll be affected," Whisenhunt said. "And hopefully, that will help prepare us to play better."

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