When it comes to tailgating, no league is more passionate than the National Football League. Regardless of whether it's week 1 or week 16, hot or cold, a meaningful game or not – the fans are there to support their team; especially in the cold.
By definition, tailgating should be done in a parking lot, so it makes sense that football is a perfect fit, with sprawling parking lots surrounding the stadiums, creating ample room to setup a grill, open a cooler and stretch your legs. Did I mention many of these fans may not even have tickets? The tailgate is the event, the reason to get up early on a Sunday and venture into the frigid, sweaty-hot or rain-drenched weather. For the true old-school tailgaters, they are always in the same spot, with the same setup and drinking the same beer (or kerosene if in Oakland). In the case that a parking lot does fill up, no worries, as the party typically flows into surrounding neighborhood yards and adjacent restaurants and bars. There is never a concern that alcohol is going to run out.
That’s not to say each NFL tailgate is the same environment - far from it. Some feature fun drunks and amusement for the whole family, others bring the sexy, and some are downright dangerous (Hi, Oakland). A few honorable mentions include San Diego Chargers, known for turning the parking lot of Qualcomm Stadium into a fiesta of the best Mexican cuisine north of the border. In Houston, the Texans deal with a lot of losing via heavy food, lots of beef, mostly in the form of steak. How big are the steaks? Big as Texas. Also, don’t forget about Cincinnati where if you plan to tailgate you best have a crock pot of your best chili on hand. Show up empty handed and you are not a true fan.
This list is the best of the best, the fans that regardless of wins and losses still stand tall - until they are too drunk, then they fall over, hopefully falling away from the grill.
10 Pittsburgh Steelers (Heinz Field)
Few teams have the storied history Steelers fans have grown accustomed to. This particular franchise has never been down for long and their current team, led by quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, is supported just as passionately as past teams led by Terry Bradshaw and Franco Harris. This passion spills into the parking lots before and after games. With over 20 parking lots that open 5 hours prior to kick-off, there are several areas to explore. Away from the stadium you will find family-friendly areas where your child can have their face painted; closer to the stadium, you find the hardcore tailgaters cooking up sausages (kielbasa is a favorite) and potato skins while waving their terrible towels. Weather can be a factor, but that won’t stop this blue collar community. Bad weather means you will need to eat one more kielbasa to keep your energy up!
9 Miami Dolphins (Sun Life Stadium)
This one may be a surprise, but Dolphin fans are loyal supporters outside Sun Life Stadium, regardless of how their team plays inside. The stadium opens up 4 hours prior and stays open 2 hours after, so if you skip the game that’s 9 hours of tailgating! Given the amount of Northeast transplants the most exciting games to tailgate are when Dolphins play the New York Jets or New England Patriots; both bring many fans to the stadium for some good ole fashioned rivalry banter that can turn violent at any moment. Super exciting! What do Miami tailgaters do better than everyone else? Girls, Girls, Girls! For starters, the cheerleaders are known to make appearances to pump up the crowd in the parking lots prior to games. That’s pretty awesome. Also let’s remember this is Miami and it is really, really hot which means at any point a wet T-shirt contest may occur. This is reason enough to not miss a home game.
8 Philadelphia Eagles (Lincoln Financial Field)
I’m half expecting to get “shanked” for not making the Eagles number one. This is the group of fans that booed Santa Claus inside the stadium, so you can imagine the chaos outside “The Linc.” Some fans keep it simple with steaks on the grill and Yuengling beer while others will make it a catered affair. This group goes all out and spares no expenses, bringing in grills the size of small cars with coolers full of meat. Eagle fans have a lot of rage; add two parts alcohol and one part meat and you can see the problem local authorities have. One time during the playoffs, a group of Eagles fans had a working hot tub in the parking lot; definitely not a gift from Santa Claus.
7 Kansas City Chiefs (Arrowhead Stadium)
Kansas City wants to be Green Bay and their tailgating experience is close to it, attracting fans from all over the country. It is often still dark out when many fans arrive on Sunday morning. There are special parties, like the one in the Chiefs van that is invite only. Look around and you will find plenty Kansas City-infused cooking from chili to barbeque to bacon - apparently bacon has monetary value with this fan base. If you make it to Lot C you will find the Tee Pee community, a group that not only has good eats and plenty of drinks, but also bands to get you ready for some football, or more bacon.
6 Oakland Raiders (Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum)
It’s fitting the Oakland Raiders play inside a stadium that sounds like a prison because outside in the parking lot it looks like a prison yard. A scary sea of masked men dressed in black with spikes and chains. It could be the world’s largest S&M party or any given Sunday in Oakland. The parking lot is split into two sections; one side is for RVs, the other for Raider Nation. Don’t get me wrong, nothing wrong with an RV party, but if you want decadence (and if you go to a Raiders game you sure as hell aren’t going for the football) you head toward the black hole, oh and fire. You may also see lots of fire because these are not typical fans; this is a group of potential criminals ready to riot at any moment. Some of the characters around are known as Shield Head and Pin-Head, they can be spotted walking around, usually drinking and/or smoking heavily. For a team that has had little success inside the stadium, outside they party like they just won their third Super Bowl. What’s that smell? That’s the pleasant aroma of barbeque and pot.
5 Cleveland Browns (Cleveland Browns Stadium)
This tortured franchise doesn’t deserver the loyalty of their fans. Most supporters probably wish they would have never known about the Browns and focused their time on a hobby instead. Trucks dressed up in brown and orange and countless Bernie Kosar jerseys populate the parking lots prior to game time. Opening 5 hours before kick-off, the parking lot is where you will find fans that take their cooking seriously. It’s not rare to see multiple turkeys being fried while a group stands around in a circle with Bloody Mary drinks in hand. If fried turkey doesn’t do it for you, maybe you are more of a grilled-chicken-filled-with-beer kind of guy. Yes, that is exactly what it sounds like.
4 New England Patriots (Gillette Stadium)
The Patriots play in Foxboro, Massachusetts, a destination location for surrounding cities Boston, Providence and Hartford. The fact that it’s a road trip makes the location that much greater for tailgating. Tailgating fact: Any time you need to get up at 3am, it's okay to have an 8am beer. In addition to plenty of Sam Adams and local microbrews, you will find a full spread of New England foods such as shrimp, lobster and shrimp. Also, it gets windy and very cold in Foxboro, so chowder – lots and lots of chowder.
3 Buffalo Bills (Ralph Wilson Stadium)
The city of Buffalo is all about the Bills and tailgating is as much a part of their culture as long winters. The fans descend into the parking lots for traditional tailgating, but also boast the largest indoor option for tailgaters who find staying warm is a key component to enjoying yourself. Since dropping three consecutive Super Bowls, Bills fans have suffered greatly, turning to food and alcohol to help find comfort. There are several staples, but two that are unique to Bills tailgating are Pinto Ken’s, a place to eat pizza that has been cooked in a file cabinet inside a Pinto (yes, the vehicle). There are also bowling balls - no, not for bowling, but for shots. Easy to see how much the cold messes with your head. Of course, no trip to a Bills tailgating event would be complete without Buffalo wings. Try them with hot sauce, cream cheese, blue cheese or shots out of a bowling ball.
2 New Orleans Saints (Mercedes Benz Superdome)
The fans in New Orleans love their Saints, partying and food and not always in that order. The destination-like feel (away from downtown) gives the event a reason to go all out with entertainment. It is common to see decked-out RVs and trailers with full entertainment centers, DJ tables and even fully functional bathrooms. The grills are so large you wonder if it was set up the night before - Spoiler Alert: It may have been, these fans arrive really early! Classic tailgating dishes such as burgers, sausages and chicken are plentiful, as well as jambalaya for all. In addition to the food and music you will find a lot of vehicles painted black and gold and also what is known as the clubhouse, the Datmobile of the “Ain’t Right Tailgaters.”
1 Green Bay Packers (Lambeau Field)
On a Sunday in December, if you are looking over the parking lot outside of Lambeau Field, you won’t find a sea of green and gold, but rather orange and yellow. The orange is “hunter orange” and is the unofficial uniform once the temperature dips below freezing. The yellow are the cheese heads worn over hoods and knit hats throughout. You can see everyone’s breath, but no one complains about the cold. It’s just another Sunday in December at Lambeau. With the waitlist for tickets in the tens of thousands, the tailgate is the event. The fans are serious with their sausage (brats rule the day), cheese (cheese curds are most popular) and beer (any brand will do as long as there is plenty). There are live bands and there's also a party inside (for those lucky enough to have tickets) as part of the Tundra Tailgate Zone. Tailgating at Lambeau in an orange hunting jacket while debating the toughness of Ray Nitschke should be on every sports fan’s bucket list.