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Jan 20, 2004 8:17 AM

And then there were two.

Upstart Carolina against the Super Bowl champion from just two seasons ago, New England. The Patriots and Panthers will meet in Houston two Sundays from now for Super Bowl XXXVIII.

New England opened up as a 7-point favorite over Carolina with the "over/under" set at 38. The Money Line currently has New England at -250 and Carolina +200.

Since the NFL adopted its present playoff format in 1990, this is one of the more competitive Super Bowls from a lines making standpoint. Of the last 13 Super Bowls nearly half (6) have had double digit pointspreads.

Two Super Bowls had the favorite close as 7½ point favorites (both covered) and another favorite, St. Louis, closed as a 7 point favorite (they pushed in their win over Tennessee). Only four of the last 13 Super Bowls featured lines less than this year’s current line.

Former Commissioner Pete Rozelle loved the saying that "on any given Sunday" any NFL team can defeat another. Over the past decade that saying can clearly be modified to "in any given season" any team can rise from the depths of ineptitude to make it to the Super Bowl. Case in point ”” the Carolina Panthers.

Just 1-15 two seasons ago, the Panthers combined a strong running game, a fundamentally solid though not overwhelming defense and a philosophy of keeping the game close into the fourth quarter. This has the Panthers on the precipice of their first Super Bowl championship.

In fact, with either New England or Carolina winning, we are assured of having for the fourth time in the past five seasons a Super Bowl champion that did not make the playoffs the previous season. Is that parity? Or mediocrity? You decide.

Over the next two weeks, Super Bowl XXXVIII will be broken down and analyzed by hundreds of commentators and pundits across the planet. Each team’s strengths and weaknesses will be discussed and hypothetical game plans will be devised to attack them.

One of the best features of the Super Bowl here in Nevada is the annual POP to which we are treated. That’s the "Plethora Of Propositions" that enables bettors to have action on virtually every play of the game. In fact, several Sports Books even offer a proposition on the coin toss, so it’s possible to have action even before the game kicks off!

Next week we’ll offer our prediction for the side and total outcome of the Super Bowl and also share some thoughts on some of the more popular propositions. For now we offer a bit of a history lesson and some general wagering thoughts for the game.

The Super Bowl has been a one sided game more often than not. Nine of the last 13 Super Bowls have been decided by double digits. More than during the regular season and even more than in previous rounds of the playoffs, the points rarely matter in Super Bowls.

Since 1990 the straight up winner of the game has covered 10 of 11 decisions, with two games ending up as pushes. With a line of 7 in this contest the conditions for a pointspread push are magnified since 7 is the second most common margin of victory behind only a margin of 3.

Thus one wagering strategy for this game would be to find a Sports Book that is offering a line of New England minus 6 ½ and play the Patriots and also try and locate a Book that has the line at 7 ½ and play the Panthers, hoping for a ”˜middle’ where New England wins by 7 points and you cash both tickets.

That is a nice theory but unlikely to occur. At least not simultaneously. Because of the huge amount of public money wagered on the Super Bowl ”” and since much of that is unsophisticated money which knee jerks to the favorite ”” there might be an opportunity for such a middle.

There might well be some early money this week on the underdog Panthers such that the line drops below 7. You may be able to find a 6 or a 6 ½ around town this week. As the game nears, the public is likely to push the line back up towards 7. And if the sentiment for the favored Patriots continues up until game time -- especially with the strong history of the winner of the game also covering the spread -- you might see 7 ½ just before kickoff.

Favorites have won 9 of the last 13 Super Bowls but are just 6-5-2 against the line. Two double digit underdogs have pulled upsets, including the Patriots two seasons ago. Tampa Bay won as an underdog last season. In this era of ”˜balance’ any underdog who has made it to the Super Bowl has to be given a legitimate chance in the big game.

Carolina has already won twice on the road in the playoffs, but the Patriots have won 14 straight games. Two years ago, New England’s Super Bowl victory was its ninth straight win. Both teams have solid credentials. New England obviously has the experience edge over Carolina but so did both St. Louis and Philadelphia in the NFC Playoffs.

Next week we’ll take a closer look at the matchup as we look to end the 2003 season with a winning prediction and take a shot at profiting from the many available propositions.