The most amusing aspect of the lead-up to each Super Bowl is the attention generated by even the minutest fluctuations in the game’s point spread.
Popular discourse, which normally disdains football pointspreads as vulgar and beneath its attention, is suddenly caught up in every line move. The terminology itself sounds breathless, with mainstream news reports focusing on the motivation of “Vegas” – or, my favorite, “the Vegas bookies.”
This year, with the Super Bowl point spread hovering around the key number of 3, the effect has been more pronounced than usual. We’ve been treated to dissertations on the subtle differences between -2.5 points, -125, and +3 points, +105.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not complaining. On the contrary, I support educating the public on the finer points of betting sports. Outside of gambling circles, which tend toward the insular, too many people view sports betting as a shadowy world where evil lurks behind every ties-win parlay card.
It’s just that, unless the Patriots end up beating the Giants by exactly 3 points, all of this pointspread talk will be forgotten by this time next week.
Review of some of the most relevant of the previous XLV Super Bowls, and you’ll find wildly disparate results vis a vis the pointspread.
The last time the Super Bowl margin of victory landed right on the spread was the “One Yard Short” game in 2000, when the Rams held off the Titans by the somewhat unusual score of 23-16. For the sake of comparison, it’s a 50-1 shot the Giants will score exactly 16 on Sunday and a 60-1 shot the Patriots will finish with 16. Useful link: Spread, total and MVP for every Super Bowl.
Much more frequently, though, Super Bowls have failed -- miserably -- to play out so true to form.
Take the precursor to this year’s matchup, the 2008 meeting between the Patriots and Giants. As oddsmakers saw that Super Bowl, New England was expected to cruise as a 12.5-point favorite in high-scoring game – the total was 55 points, just as it is in this year’s rematch. Of course, the Giants went on to win outright in a low-scoring game with a 17-14 final.
That certainly was not the first time bettors were bamboozled by the Super Bowl result, although it has often been a case of the betting favorite winning by a much wider margin than expected.
Veteran Las Vegas pro gambler Lem Banker, for example, had a long personal Super Bowl winning streak end in the 1986 big game when he took 11 points with the Patriots, who lost to the Bears, 46-10. “I think that if the Pats had come out with machine guns and opened fire on the Bears’ defenders, the bullets would have bounced off the Bears’ chests,” Banker wrote in his “Book of Sports Betting.”
More recently, the Ravens wildly exceeded expectations in the 2001 Super Bowl, defeating the Giants 34-7 as a 3-point favorite. Of a host of weird proposition results, this was perhaps the most notable: The number of interceptions thrown by Giants quarterback Kerry Collins was a +140 underdog in Las Vegas against the number of goals in the first period of that day’s Flyers-Capitals game, which was a -180 favorite in the prop. Collins threw four INTs; the Flyers and Caps went scoreless in the first period.
Getting back to Super Bowl upsets, even the most casual NFL fan can spout the details of the Jets’ 16-7 victory against the Colts in 1969 as an underdog of 17 to 19 points. The 1942 NFL title game, however, yielded an even bigger shocker as the Redskins upended the Bears 14-6 as a 22-point underdog. (Tip of the cap to Arne K. Lang’s “Sports Betting 101” for that piece of gambling lore.)
Despite these confounding results, once in a while a handicapper nails it. A preview of the 1971 big game in the Gold Sheet sounded eerily similar to some of my modern-day good-natured griping about Super Bowl hype: “Millions of words are going to be written about this game. They will be used to analyze every possible detail that might offer a clue as to the outcome.” The Gold Sheet then predicted the Baltimore Colts would beat the Cowboys 16-13 – which is precisely what happened.
Coming around full circle to the notion of analyzing every nuance of the Super Bowl line, I’ve heard some savvy bettors brag that they jumped on the Giants plus 3.5 points early, then bet the Patriots minus 2.5 when that number popped up for a shot at a middle on Sunday.
That’s quite nice, but nothing compared to the 1978 Cowboys-Broncos Super Bowl. According to “Covering the Spread,” by Gerald Strine and Neil D. Isaacs, even at game time the line was 4 points in Denver but 7 points in Dallas with underground bookies. How times have changed. As an inveterate line shopper, I lament the fact I’ve never had a chance to lay 4 and take 7 in a Super Bowl (on the same day, no less).
Alas, like the character in a Bob Dylan song from roughly that era, I was born too late. Blame it on a simple twist of fate.