The hype for Super Bowl 50 is in full swing as Denver and QB Peyton Manning seek redemption for past Super Bowl failures while Carolina and QB Cam Newton seek to create their own legacy going forward.
As we went to press on Monday there was a fairly even split of sportsbooks having the Panthers as either 5.5 or 6 point favorites over the Broncos. The prevailing Total for the game was 45.5 although there were some books at 45 and others at 46. Despite the presence of two outstanding defenses the public likes to bet the “OVER” and thus we are more likely to see the Total close closer to 46 than to 45.
The pointspread itself is an entirely different matter. In most seasons once the opening Super Bowl line comes out following the conclusion of the two Conference Championship games and settles in at a certain number within the first 24 hours of wagering, there is little movement for the next week or so until the betting action begins to heat up roughly on the Thursday preceding the game.
That was not the case this season. Most books opened the game at either 4 or 4.5 although the Westgate SuperBook opened 5.5 but saw the early action force the line down to 4 within a couple of hours. By midday on Monday, less than 24 hours after the initial line came out, the prevailing pointspread had Carolina a 4 to 4.5 point favorite.
The general consensus in the wagering community, both in Nevada and abroad, was the line would remain fairly stable for the next week before the heavy action began and it might peak at Carolina minus 6 – perhaps only briefly – such that those who wanted to take the points with Denver would likely get the chance to take plus 6 before the line quickly moved back down to 5.5.
The numbers 4.5, 5 and 5.5 are considered “dead” numbers as a very low percentage of games historically end with a final margin of 5. Roughly 3 percent of all games land on 5 but some of those games are won by the underdog. Thus favorites historically win by 5 points about 1.6 percent of the time. This percentage goes back nearly 30 years and has also been the percentage looking back at just the past six seasons or so.
But we have seen a different phenomenon develop for this Super Bowl as there has been a steady flow of Carolina money that resulted in the line creeping up last week to as high as Panthers minus 6 at many Las Vegas sportsbooks. There was little, if any, buy back by Broncos backers, which has led to speculation the line may peak at 7 and Denver bettors might do well to be patient and wait for plus 7 to show later this week as the Super Bowl kick off approaches.
There is widespread belief the so-called “sharps” and “wise guys” will be backing Denver but are waiting until the line appears to be peaking and the thought is 7, rather than 6, will be that peak number.
That theory is advanced by way of recalling that prior to the playing of the Conference Championship games Carolina was available around Las Vegas to be bet as a 3-point favorite over Denver should that Super Bowl matchup materialize, as it did.
The books made a slight adjustment in response to Carolina blowing out Arizona to win the NFC Title while Denver struggled to survive against New England to win the AFC Title. The books knew whatever number they put up the “public” would flock to the Panthers based on the “what we last saw” mentality that often dictates public action. Some books were prescient enough to move the line to 5.5 as early as last Tuesday in anticipation of early Carolina money.
The professional bettors will be getting great perceived “value” by taking Denver at plus 6 to plus 7 when the actual line, hours before the Broncos and Panthers each won their Conference Championship games, was just 5.
Whether the books acted foolishly by opening the line “too low” as some have stated or whether they knew exactly what they were doing won’t be known until Sunday evening but, as a rule, the bookmakers know what they are doing much more often than not, and there has even been advanced the notion that the opening line of minus 4 can be considered a “trap” line that enticed much more early Carolina money than had the line opened at, say, minus 6.
Last week’s column dealt mostly with some early Super Bowl thoughts and much Super Bowl history. Most of the balance of this week’s column will take a closer look at the game itself and how Super Bowl 50 may play out, along with a predicted final score that will lead to a preference for both the Side and Total.
There have been 25 Super Bowls played since the current Playoff format was changed in 1990 to allow for 12, rather than 10, teams to make the Playoffs. For much of those games under this format favorites fared quite well, winning 13 of the first 17 (12-3-2 ATS) with only one instance of the underdog winning in back-to-back seasons.
Eleven of those 17 games were decided by double digits. Six of the 17 involved a double digit favorite yet two of the four underdog wins came in those games. New England defeated St. Louis as 14-point underdogs in SB 36 just four seasons after Denver upset Green Bay as 11.5-point underdogs in SB 32.
But in the last eight Super Bowls things have turned dramatically as underdogs have won six times, including each of the past four seasons. This run began with the New York Giants upsetting the 18-0 Patriots in SB 42 as 12.5 point underdogs.
The only favorite in this span to both win and cover was Green Bay in SB 45. In SB 43 favored Pittsburgh scored the game-winning touchdown with 35 seconds remaining to defeat Arizona, 27-23, but failed to cover as 6.5-point favorites. Thus, in the last eight Super Bowls the underdog is 7-1 ATS with six outright wins. That also includes all three matchups between number 1 seeds, which also is the matchup for Super Bowl 50.
As the top seeds both Carolina and Denver were the best teams in their respective conferences over the entirety of the regular season and despite any ups and downs during the season also managed to win their two home Playoff games to reach the Super Bowl.
While much is made of Carolina’s 17-1 record Denver’s 14-4 mark is not to be scoffed at. Given recent Super Bowl history, examination of this game must begin with a look at the underdog in an attempt to determine if that team is capable of winning this game straight up without regard to the pointspread.
In looking at the four units that will determine much of how this game is won or lost there is only one weak unit on the field – the Denver offense. Most observers would argue the Denver defense is the best unit on the field with the Carolina offense ranked second and the Carolina defense ranked third, or vice versa.
Most would say there is very little separating those top three units from one another but there is a gap between whichever of those units you rank third and the Denver offense.
If defense does indeed win championships, a Denver victory would figure from its defense being able to contain and limit the Carolina offense. The Carolina defense should have an easier time containing the Denver offense.
Carolina has two significant edges over Denver when it comes to qualities that generally point to success. The Panthers have a big edge in rushing offense – 143 yards per game to Denver’s 107.
The Panthers also have an edge in avoiding turnovers, losing just 1.1 turnovers per game compared to Denver losing 1.8. But most of that edge results from Denver having lost five turnovers in a game twice – a mid-season home loss to Kansas City and a win in their final regular season game vs. San Diego. In only one of their other 16 games did the Broncos cough it up as many as three times. Carolina never lost more than three turnovers in a game but did lose that many on three occasions.
Both teams have excellent defenses. On a yards-per-play basis Denver has the edge in allowing just 4.5 ypp compared to Carolina’s 5.0. Denver led the league in allowing just 3.3 yards per rush. Carolina allows 4.0 ypr. The Broncos also allow just 5.3 yards per pass attempt. That also leads the NFL but Carolina is second just behind Denver at allowing 5.4 ypa.
Using these statistics as a starting point it is possible to conclude both defenses will have success defending the pass. Carolina has the more productive passing game but Denver’s stingy pass defense may prevent the big pass play from Cam Newton. Denver’s passing game is much less potent and may have to rely on Peyton Manning using the short passing game, especially since his arm strength is a major concern, which suggests his ability to throw deep is limited.
At the same time, Carolina’s stronger rushing offense is offset by its weaker rushing defense on a yards-per-rush basis. Although Carolina averages 36 more yards per game rushing on a yards-per-rush basis the difference in favor of Carolina is only 0.2 ypr (4.3 vs. 4.1).
Experience certainly favors Denver although that experience results from having been blown out 43-8 by Seattle just two years ago in SB 48. A good number of key players, including QB Manning, were on that team although this season’s defense is much better than the one that was exploited by the Seahawks. Still, knowing how to prepare for the Big Game and deal with the many distractions is worth something in the evaluation of intangibles.
Strength of schedule, a guide that can sometimes be misleading, can also be helpful in comparing the body of work of the teams. Carolina played a much softer schedule than Denver. Using regular season results Carolina’s 16 foes were a combined 113-143 SU. Denver’s were a combined 128-128.
Looking at the pointspread records of their opponents, Carolina’s were a combined 115-134-7. Denver’s were 129-117-10. Including the Playoffs, just four of Carolina’s 18 games were against teams that won 10 or more regular season games. Nine of Denver’s 18 games were against such teams. Six of Denver’s last seven foes scored 20 points or less and only one team all season, Pittsburgh, scored more than 24 points against the Broncos. Carolina’s stats are very good as well, but not at the same level of Denver.
Much of the support for Carolina comes from the ease in which it won its NFC Championship game by defeating Arizona, 49-15, versus the trouble Denver had in defeating New England, 20-18.
Looking back over the last 25 Super Bowls, teams that scored at least 35 points in winning their Conference Championship game are 6-3 SU but just 4-5 ATS, excluding SB 41 in which both teams qualified. Teams that won their Conference Championship game by at least 20 points are just 2-4 both SU and ATS in the Super Bowl. Carolina meets both of these criteria.
Teams that won their Conference Championship games by 3 points or less are 4-2 both SU and ATS, excluding SB 45 in which both teams had arrived at the Super Bowl following such narrow victories. Teams that scored fewer than 21 points in winning the Conference Championship games are just 4-5 SU but 5-2-2 ATS in the Super Bowl. Denver meets both of these criteria.
These results seem to validate the contention the early line move toward Carolina reflects too much of an adjustment from the opening line, which already had been slightly adjusted for the contrasting performances of Denver and Carolina in their Conference Championship games. And as the line rises from 4 to 6 and possibly 7 the chance for the points to come into play increases.
It’s easy to make a case for Carolina to win this game, perhaps quite handily. After all, the Panthers have looked very strong in winning their Playoff games against Seattle and Arizona and at 17-1 have the chance to join some very elite company by finishing 18-1. Only three teams in NFL history have finished with that mark (1984 San Francisco, 1985 Chicago and 2007 New England).
The case is made stronger by the concerns about the Denver offense and QB Manning in particular. But the two weeks to prepare often work to the advantage of the underdog. They have more time to plan how to attack the supposedly better team and will play with the underdog’s mentality. The time off can also work to slow down the momentum of the high flying favorite.
Although neither head coach is considered to have an advantage over the other, the presence of Denver defensive coordinator Wade Phillips gives the Broncos an edge. Phillips has been in the game a long time with both head coach and defensive coordinator experience. He’s had to face many different styles of quarterbacks and will be well prepared to take on the mobility and versatility of Cam Newton.
He showed his ability in the game plan he put in place against the Patriots and QB Tom Brady. The plan will be different for Newton but could be similarly effective.
The forecast from this columnist is to respect the linesmakers who may have had close to perfect numbers when Carolina opened a 4-point favorite with a Total of 45. DENVER/UNDER.
Andy Iskoe, and his Logical Approach, provides his popular and unique handicapping statistics to GamingToday readers and online visitors. He has been a long time GT columnist, contributing weekly in-season columns on baseball, pro basketball and pro football. Email: [email protected]