Betting on the Super Bowl Over or Under
by Robert Ferringo - 1/27/2016
Betting on the Super Bowl over and under this year is a study in contradictions. Every year the majority of Super Bowl bettors play the total to go 'over'. However, this year the public recognizes that the game features two phenomenal defenses that should control what will obviously be a low-scoring game, and that means an easy bet on the 'under'.
So how are we supposed to bet this game?
Carolina and Denver will meet at 6:30 p.m. on Sunday, Feb. 7 in Super Bowl XL (50). The game will take place at Levi's Stadium in San Francisco. Carolina is an early favorite of anywhere from 4.5 to 5.5, depending on the sportsbook, and the total is solid at 45.5 across the board.
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The general public, in just about any big sporting event, bets on a game the way they want to see it played rather than the way that they think it will be played. People like points, and points means 'over', so it's not a surprise that every year the 'over' in the Super Bowl takes the overwhelming action. This year is no exception, with 74 percent of the early bets on the Super Bowl total coming in on the 'over'.
However, this year's game pits two of the most physical, most dominating defenses in the game against one another. Denver is No. 1 in the NFL in total yards and No. 4 in the league in scoring defense. Carolina is No. 6 in total yards and No. 6 in scoring defense and is coming off an overwhelming performance in the NFC Championship Game while holding Arizona to just 15 points. With those hard-hitting efforts still in everyone's minds, the general consensus about this year's Super Bowl is that it will be a low-scoring grinder and thus likely to stay 'under' the total.
Totals betting is leading to total confusion in the gambling community. However, one side of this argument is going to score a clear and decisive victory on Super Sunday. This game is going to go 'over' or it is going to go 'under'. And after the game the result will seem obvious, preordained. One side will bask in the glow of Easy Money on the side of Success while the other will be left staring in the face of their own stupidity.
Welcome to betting the Super Bowl.
About five minutes into the first quarter of the NFC Championship Game - when it was clear that Carolina was going to beat the piss out of a terrified Carson Palmer and the weak Cardinals - I texted some friends that I though the Super Bowl spread would be Carolina -6.5 and the total would be 45.5. I was high on the spread but dead-on with the total. But knowing what the number will be and knowing how to beat it are two different things.
So the question remains: how do we beat this Super Bowl total?
First, we need to put this total in a broader historical context. The 'over' is 26-23 in the 49-year history of the Super Bowl. Seven of the first nine Super Bowls actually went 'under', which means that the 'over' has hit in 60 percent of the games over the next four decades (24-16).
This year's 45.5 represents the seventh-lowest total in the last 25 years of the Super Bowl. Here are the last six:
Super Bowl XLV (Green Bay 31, Pittsburgh 25) - Went 'over' 45.0
Super Bowl XXXVIII (New England 32, Carolina 29) - Went 'over' 37.5
Super Bowl XXXVII (Tampa Bay 48, Oakland 21) - Went 'over' 44.0
Super Bowl XXXV (Baltimore 34, Oakland 7) - Went 'over' 33.0
Super Bowl XXVII (Dallas, 52, Buffalo 17) - Went 'over' 44.5
Super Bowl XXV (New York 20, Buffalo 19) - Went 'under' 40.5
As you can see, five of those six games - all expected to be low-scoring affairs - sailed over the total. And if you go back to 1983, there were three other Super Bowls (XXI, XX and XVII) that featured totals posted below 41.0. All three of those games sailed 'over' by an average of nearly 16 points per game.
So over the last 34 years teams are 8-1 against the total in the Super Bowl when it is posted below 46.0. And the one game that stayed 'under' only did so by three feet; the notorious "wide right" kick by Scott Norwood not only would have won the Super Bowl for Buffalo but also pushed that game over the total.
Next, we should look at more recent history to see if we can glean any useful trends or information. Here are this decade's results, in which four of the last five Super Bowls have gone 'over' the total:
2015: Seattle-New England 'Over' 47.5 (28-24)
2014: Seattle-Denver 'Over' 47.5 (43-8)
2013: San Francisco-Baltimore 'Over' 48.0 (34-31)
2012: N.Y. Giants-New England 'Under' 53.0 (21-17)
2011: Green Bay-Pittsburgh 'Over' 45.0 (31-25)
2010: New Orleans-Indianapolis 'Under' 56.5 (31-17)
There are three interesting things to note about these recent results. No. 1 is that the 'over' has hit in three straight seasons. Only one time in Super Bowl history has the 'over' hit four straight seasons: during the dark days of the Annual Super Bowl Blowout in the late 80s. No. 2 is that the last Super Bowl to feature two defensive-oriented teams was the 49ers-Ravens game, and that ended up being the highest-scoring Super Bowl of the decade. And No. 3 is that the lowest total in this bunch, the Packers-Steelers game, also went 'over' the total.
Finally, we have to consider how this total relates to what we've seen from the Panthers and Broncos to this point of the season.
This total is pretty consistent with where Carolina's numbers have been for the past three months. They have had a total between 44.0 and 46.5 in nine of their last 13 games and have gone 'over' in six of those games. For Denver, this total is a bit high, as theirs have generally sat in the 41-43 range. In fact, the Broncos have only faced a total of 45.5 or higher three times this year - and two of those went 'under'.
In a lot of ways Carolina is the perfect embodiment of this Super Bowl total paradox. The Panthers are known for their punishing defense and running game, and they have ridden both to this point. Defense and running the ball is old school football, and that should lend itself to a low-scoring game. Right? Well, not really.
The Panthers - despite not having a single receiver or running back that would go in the first five rounds of a fantasy football draft - have the No. 1 scoring offense in football. They have pounded their way to 31.2 points per game and have been one of the best 'over' bets in the game. Carolina is 12-5-1 against the total this season, including a perfect 2-0 against the total in the postseason and an outstanding 7-2 against the total in their last nine games.
And it is not as if Carolina has been walking through weak-sister defense. They lit up Seattle for 31 points in the first half of their playoff matchup. Arizona's defense, which Carolina hit for 49 points last week, beating the 47.0 total by themselves, entered that game with a Top 5 defense. So the Panthers have been a juggernaut that no mortal defense has been able to contain.
Which begs the question: does Denver have a mortal defense? Or are they something more?
The Broncos certainly put forth a legendary effort against New England in the AFC Championship Game last week. They hit Tom Brady 23 times and held the Mighty Patriots to just 18 hard-earned points. The week prior Denver held Pittsburgh to just 16 points, and the Broncos have only allowed more than 20 points two times in their last nine games and they are just 2-5 against the total in their last seven.
So we have the age-old matchup of the unstoppable force (Carolina's offense) versus the immovable object (Denver's defense). But we also have the clear conflict between public habits (betting the 'over') and public perception (this game will be dominated by defense and go 'under').
The winner of those matchups will likely determine the winner of the game - and the fate of totals bettors across the country.
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