When it comes to picking a Super Bowl winner, I turn to Vegas. More specifically, I rely on the crowdsourced, statistically significant perception of those who are willing to place money on the game. It’s important to understand that Vegas attempts to set the spread and over/under so that an equal amount of money will come in on both sides. In doing so, they guarantee themselves a profit.
Example: I take the favorite (favorite covers the spread) and you take the underdog (favorite doesn’t cover or underdog wins.) I bet 100 and the payout is 90. You do the same. In this scenario, no matter what happens, the books pay the winner from the loser and pocket 10 dollars. If too much money is on one side, the books could win big or lose big. But why take that risk? Instead, the line simply moves to entice more money from the weak side and back toward a guaranteed profit. Last year’s Super Bowl saw $98.9M in bets and Vegas profited $7.2M. However, moving the line can be tricky and Vegas actually lost one time with the right mix of circumstances. In Super Bowl XIII, the Steelers opened as the favorite at -4.5. Early action on the Cowboys moved the line to -3.5. The final score of the game was Steelers 35, Cowboys 31. So, the early big money on the underdog cashed as did the Steelers money that came in after the line moved. The books call it “Black Sunday.”
Consequently, the spread and totals are, in theory, a representation of the mathematical midpoints of the perception of those who bet. If we view these midpoints as the apex of Gaussian distributions, the closer to these midpoints the games result in, the more accurate the bettors. In contrast, the further away reality strays from the midpoints, the greater inaccuracy of the bettors. It’s worth noting that with even money on both sides of the spread, there are more dollars on the favorite to win the game outright, final score notwithstanding. The over/under doesn’t carry this idiosyncrasy.
Asking your average guy on the street which team will win the Super Bowl is one thing. Looking at the line is like having asked all of the people willing to collectively place nearly nine figures on the game what they think. So, I crunched some numbers on how right or wrong these folks have been.
Up front, I have to say that the data set isn’t the largest in the world, but it’s what’s available (and this is just for fun.) I wish I had 10,000 results to look at. Additionally, I am making the simple assumption that there is an even amount of money on both sides of the spread and totals in determining what the betting public thinks and measuring how accurate they are. Further, I decided to start with Super Bowl V – the first one after the merger. From there, I had to consider that the game has gone through changes over time that would certainly influence the perception of bettors, and I’ve accordingly divided it into three separate eras.
Super Bowls V – XV (1971 – 1981)
This era was defined by AFC defensive dominance. It’s worth noting that Pittsburgh and Baltimore were originally NFL teams that were moved to the newly created AFC post-merger, but no matter. The point here is the Steel Curtain defense and the crushing Oakland teams that lead the AFC to a (9-2) record in this era. Of the three eras, this brutal period saw the lowest average score for the winner, loser, and consequently, total average score at 24.5, 12.5, and 37 points, respectively. The average margin of victory was 12 points. In these 11 SB, often appearing teams performed as follows:
- AFC – Pittsburgh (4-0), Oakland (2-0), Miami (2-1)
- NFC – Dallas (2-3), Minnesota (0-3)
Immediately, we can see a lack of parity in the league where, of the 22 appearances, 5 teams accounted for 17 of them – a 77% clip with these teams often facing each other. If we then take a look at how the spread worked out, the favorites were (10-1) and (9-2) on covering. When covering, the average margin of victory of the favorites was 12 points, covering by an average of 7.5. What’s even more impressive about how accurate the lines were in this era is that in Dallas’s five appearances, they won and covered both times they were favored, and lost the other three appearances as the underdog with two favorites covering and the other favorite lacking just +3.5 to cover.
Regarding the over/under, the under won 7 of 11 times as bettors were slightly high a majority of the time considering the dominant defenses of the day. Of those seven times, the under won by an average of -6 points. Sadly, this is the best performance of the three periods. Also, the aforementioned SB XIII Black Sunday occurred during this period and was not only a disaster for bookies on the spread, but it was also the most lopsided over/under result in any SB of all eras with the over winning by +29. If you were to throw out that anomaly, the overall perception of bettors of that time was pretty good and the best it’s likely to ever be. In this period, more money was on the team that ultimately won 10 of 11 games. The total was slightly high by an average of only 6 points a majority of the time.
Super Bowls XVI – XXXI (1982 – 1997)
This stretch of time was owned by the NFC in large part due to the introduction of the west coast offense. NFC teams won 15 of these 16 SB. Montana and the Niners dominated the ‘80s and the Cowboys won three of four in the mid ‘90s. This period saw the highest average score of the winning team at 36.5 points leading to the highest overall average total at 53 and the highest average margin of victory at 20 points. This era covers 16 SB as opposed to the previous eleven. In consequence, we see a few more teams that appear more than once, but with the addition of almost 50% more games in the stats, this is not a big jump for competitiveness in the league overall. As evidenced here, 27 of the 32 appearances, 84%, came from just 9 teams. Again, with them often facing each other:
- NFC – San Francisco (5-0), Dallas (3-0), Washington (3-1), New York Giants (2-0)
- AFC – Buffalo (0-4), Denver (0-3), Cincinnati, Miami, New England (0-2)
Regarding the spread, favorites were (12-4), but only (9-7) on covering. This era shows bettors becoming a bit less accurate than before. The average margin of victory for favorites was an incredible 24 points, covering by an average of 15. Both of those figures are twice as high as the previous era considered. At first, one might think that it just took a while for public perception to adjust to this new high flying offensive era in football, but three blowout wins in the latter half of this period were not foreseen – San Francisco covering by 33 in ’90, the Cowboys covering by 28.5 with a +24.5 on the over in ’93, and +21.5 on the over by the Niners/Chargers in ’95.
The inaccuracy of bettors continues on the over/under in this period with the over winning 10 of 16 times at an average of +13.25 on the over victories. In contrast with the previous era’s expected under wins from defense, this era’s bettors missed totals very low by more than a touchdown more than the previous under’s average totals only running slightly high. In simple terms, despite a prolonged offensive NFC dominance, bettors were twice as inaccurate in this era as the previous.
Super Bowls XXXII – XLVII (1998 – 2013)
In this latest era, we’ve encountered lots of parity within the league. Even with the emergence of the internet and fantasy football, presuming a more informed bettor base, things are as unpredictable as ever. In these 16 SB, the AFC leads the NFC (10-6) with no true dynasties like decades before and the average margin of victory in these games has been choked down to 9 points. Appearances are more spread out to new teams as New Orleans and Tampa Bay saw their first appearances result in wins and Arizona, Atlanta, Carolina, Seattle, and Tennessee appeared for the first time, but lost. Even the more dominant teams of this time tend to carry losses with their wins. Here’s the breakdown:
- AFC – New England (3-2), Baltimore (2-0), Denver (2-0), Pittsburgh (2-1), Indianapolis (1-1)
- NFC – New York Giants (2-1), Green Bay (1-1), St. Louis (1-1)
The favorites are only (9-7) in this era and (5-11) on covering. When the favorites covered, albeit only 31% of the time, it was by a margin of 9 – an improvement down 6 points from the previous era. However, the fact remains that bettors are placing more money on the team that loses outright with a greater frequency because the prevailing dominant circumstances from the previous eras are gone. The underdog bet has won 5 of the last 6 years with 4 outright underdog wins and Pittsburgh failing to cover Arizona in SB XLIII.
With respect to the over/under, things get even wilder. Over these 16 SB, the over/under is an even (8-8) with extremes ranging from +25 to -24. The total has been off by two scores or more the past four years. Strangely, the only thing bettors seem to have gotten better at is the overall over/under average during this era as compared with the previous two. The overall total averages are +1.25, +6.5, and +0.5 (technically +0.40625) in each era, respectively. However, in the latest era, the overs average +12 and the unders average -11. Translation: over the last 16 SB, bettors know the average total score of the SB to within less than half a point. However, on any one of those particular Super Bowl Sundays, they’re off an average of two scores in either direction an equal number of times. So, they know how any ol’ football game should end, just not the specific one they’re betting on.
In summary, for the three eras I’ve defined:
Super Bowls V – XV (1971 – 1981), Defensive Era, AFC (9-2)
- 9 favorites won and covered (82%)
- 1 favorite not covering (9%)
- 1 underdog champ (9%)
- 7/11 Unders
- Unders averaging -6, Overs averaging +13.75
- Bettors slightly high by average of 1 score 64% of time
Super Bowls XVI – XXXI (1982 – 1997), Offensive Era, NFC (15-1)
- 9 favorites won and covered (56%)
- 2 favorites not covering (13%)
- 1 push (6%)
- 4 underdog champs (25%)
- 10/16 Overs
- Overs averaging +13.25, Unders averaging -5
- Bettors very low by average of 2 scores 63% of time
Super Bowls XXXII – XLVII (1998 – 2013), Parity Era, AFC (10-6)
- 5 favorites won and covered (31%)
- 3 favorites not covering (19%)
- 1 push (6%)
- 7 underdog champs (44%)
- 8 Overs and 8 Unders
- Overs averaging +12, Unders averaging -11
- Totals extremely high or low by average of 3 scores 75% of time
Bettors have become progressively worse, placing more money on the team who loses the game outright at an increasing rate. Likewise, they’ve become just as bad regarding the over/under moving from bad to worse to ugly.
So where does that leave us for Super Bowl XLVIII?
For starters, most of the books were originally on Seattle at -1 or -2. Heavy money on the Broncos shifted the spread in their favor out to -3, but the latest bets have bought that down to -2. The total was at 47, and as we’ve gotten closer to the game with no bad weather reports, that has shifted to 48.5 with more money coming in on the over.
At the moment, it’s Broncos (-2), 48.5, and the weather is forecasted in the 30’s and cloudy for gametime.
On paper, things are very close and interesting.
- Seattle’s Pass Offense ranked #26 vs. Denver’s Pass Defense ranked #27
- Seattle’s Rush Offense ranked #4 vs. Denver’s Rush Defense ranked #8
Seattle appears to carry a slight edge on offense.
- Denver’s Pass Offense ranked #1 vs. Seattle’s Pass Defense ranked #1
- Denver’s Rush Offense ranked #15 vs. Seattle’s Rush Defense ranked #7
Seattle appears to hold a slight edge on defense as well.
Let’s take a look at how each team performed against other playoff teams during the regular season and playoffs.
- Seattle – Averaged 24 points on offense, held opponents to 15, (5-2) record
- Denver – Averaged 31 points on offense, held opponents to 24, (6-3) record
So, if we average those averages and weight them to account for Denver’s two more games, you get a projected tie at 24-24. By averaging the actual scores of all 16 of those games, it’s Seattle 24, Denver 23.625. It can’t get much closer than that.
I’d keep your money in your pocket. However, if I had to choose:
The Spread with Broncos (-2): Underdog
I had a dream that Seattle won. My wife thinks they’re gonna win. The stats say they hold the slightest of edges. The theme of parity in this latest era would continue. If lots of money doesn’t pour in on Seattle in the final days leading up to the game and Denver remains the favorite, this is likely another underdog champion. Or, Denver 24, Seattle 23…
The Total at (48.5): Under
The projected total, with consideration to how each of these offenses will perform against the opponent’s defense, has been on either side of the over/under since the matchup was determined. Gametime will be cold and I think this might serve to slow down offenses a bit. Additionally, I usually give the edge to the defense in the first few series of a big game as the pressure is on the offense to get something done and they need to get the jitters out of the way before settling into the game. I think the only way the over will win at this total is if this thing goes to overtime, which seems more likely than many past Super Bowl matchups.
Final Prediction: Seattle 27, Denver 20
I hope everyone has fun at the parties and such regardless if you care about the teams, or even football for that matter. I found ONE bar that will be showing the game live at 7:30am local time here on Gili Trawangan (a very small island) in Indonesia. Eat a chicken wing for me.
Love to you all!