Early Betting Super Bowl XLVIII: Who Will Win “The Big One”?

Did you say Super Bowl odds? Like how did we get to Super Bowl odds all of a sudden? Well, we’re heading into Week 17, and 20 of the NFL’s 32 teams will see their seasons end this Sunday. (tear, sniffle) At the moment though, 18 may still cling to their dreams of winning the Super Bowl this February. As they were months ago, Seattle and Denver seem to be the heavyweights, but then, so did the 2007 Patriots six years ago. Seattle and Denver are in fact the favorites in Las Vegas, at +220 (2.2 to 1) and +300 (3 to 1)1 respectively to come out on top in the Big Apple,2 while the Steelers, who need to win and three other teams to lose just to get into the playoffs,3 are currently +20,000 to win it all on Sportsbook.com. Whoo! Football Outsiders has also posted their updated playoff odds report, which factors DVOA (weighted to favor more recent games) and likely home field advantage into a simulation run 50,000 times. They posit that Seattle has a 24.3% chance of winning the Super Bowl, and Denver a 20.3% chance. (Pittsburgh 0.1%.) What’s it all mean?

When gambling, I like to take the same approach I take to poker: I get a little drunk and after losing a while look for ways to steal my opponents’ chips, cheat, or childishly point out their other shortcomings which is to say for every hand (or money line, or spread), I examine the payout and determine how often I’ll have to win for a bet to be profitable in the long run. By doing this correctly, I’m not really gambling anymore, I’m just making money/playing a sound strategy/etc, because in the long run, there is no risk. If my odds of winning are better than the odds of how much money I have to risk relative to the reward, this is a good bet in the long run! (Whoo!)

There are differences between poker and, say, betting on a Super Bowl champion before Week 17. This season is only played once, these games are only played once. It’s not an infinite game, it’s more like a one-shot game. But, if you had complete faith that Football Outsiders’ playoff probabilities were 100% correct,4 and perfectly reflected the true odds, what would that mean?

So you want to bet on the Broncos. They’re +300, or 3 to 1. To break even, this bet needs to come through 25% of the time.5 But Football Outsiders has them winning Super Bowl [Inserting Roman Numeral…] XLVIII only 20.3% of the time. The expected payout of this gamble is negative (-4.7%, in fact). Bummer. Here’s that same breakdown for all 18 teams still currently in the race, sorted high to low by expected payout (aka best bets):

Team Odds To One Chance to Break Even FO Chance Expected Payout Rank
NE 10 9.09% 14.20% 5.11% 1
CAR 8.5 10.53% 15.20% 4.67% 2
PHI 30 3.23% 4.00% 0.77% 3
CIN 18 5.26% 5.90% 0.64% 4
NO 25 3.85% 4.00% 0.15% 5
KC 35 2.78% 2.90% 0.12% 6
PIT 200 0.50% 0.10% -0.40% 7
ARI 90 1.10% 0.60% -0.50% 8
DAL 100 0.99% 0.20% -0.79% 9
MIA 90 1.10% 0.30% -0.80% 10
BAL 100 0.99% 0.10% -0.89% 11
SD 100 0.99% 0.10% -0.89% 12
CHI 60 1.64% 0.70% -0.94% 13
IND 35 2.78% 1.10% -1.68% 14
GB 40 2.44% 0.20% -2.24% 15
DEN 3 25.00% 20.30% -4.70% 16
SF 7.5 11.76% 5.70% -6.06% 17
SEA 2.2 31.25% 24.30% -6.95% 18

Even the briefest of glances reveals that Football Outsiders’ odds are not perfect; they are not adjusted for injures. The Patriots’ projection is weighted towards the recent past, but still includes data from when Rob Gronkowski (and Wilfork, and Vollmer, and the 600 other players the Patriots had go on IR this season) were on the field. It’s possible their true odds are still better than Vegas thinks. I probably wouldn’t bet on them, even at 10 to 1. Green Bay, meanwhile, looks like a terrible bet, but almost half of the data is without Aaron Rodgers. Though his collarbone’s status is still unknown, I would at least consider throwing a little money on Green Bay right now. Or maybe I would, if Clay Matthews weren’t injured as well. But then, there’s the Carolina Panthers. Mm-mm! That’s a leap I find most intriguing. I might be similarly intrigued by Cincinnati if Geno Atkins hadn’t gone out for the year, and I also am of the purely speculative opinion that New Orleans is too low, although Brees would have to bail out his offensive line for that to happen. Back to the Panthers, though.

The last reason I like the Panthers on these odds is because, despite beating the 49ers and their last-second, home win against the Saints last week, I just kinda feel they still may be a little underappreciated. There’s been a lot of coverage on the Panthers’ inability to close out games, how Cam Newton often choked his first two years, etc. Surely people will doubt his ability to “win the big one”. We love to apply narratives to outcomes, to explain things (in fact, I’m doing that right now to supplant my justification of Carolina), but many times it may not depend on Newton’s mental psyche so much as, well, sh*t happens.

Consider elite quarterbacks John Elway and Tom Brady. Elway lost his first four (!) Super Bowls, before winning consecutive championships his final two seasons. Brady won hist first three (starting when he was 24!), before losing two to the Giants. Elway constantly heard about how he couldn’t win “the big one”, but no one said that about Brady after his losses, what with his three rings and all. It’s nonsense. Football, more so than any other professional sport, is a team effort.6 The quarterback is the most important position, not the only important position. There are 11 guys on offense, 11 guys on defense, and still others on sub-packages and special teams. Ironically, in close contests when a quarterback “chokes”, the quality of his teammates matters even more, as the margin between defeat and victory shrinks.

The numbers suggest the Panthers’ odds in Vegas are too long. The above is why I think that might be. Newton’s Panthers have never made the playoffs, and have known only losing seasons. Newton just isn’t a winner yet. Well, no quarterback is, until he wins. Forget the narratives. Elway was a great quarterback for many seasons; that he won championships in his final two might have a little to due with additional experience and wisdom, but more to do with having Terrell Davis, or more favorable match-ups, the technological advancements in scouting your opponents, etc. If a quarterback is good enough to get to the Super Bowl, he’s good enough to win it. Many factors beyond a quarterback’s control come into play, and that we may overlook them does not make such factors any less significant. And hey, sometimes… sh*t happens.

  1. For +###(##) American odds, just divide by 100 to get the fractional odds. The + means how much you win (profit, net, etc) on a $100 bet. 
  2. Well, New Jersey, technically… lame. 
  3. The Steelers need to beat Cleveland at home, have New York (Jets, duh) win in Miami, have Baltimore lose in Cincinnati, and have Kansas City win in San Diego. 
  4. I do not endorse such faith. But they are “probably” pretty close. (Heyyy-eyyyy!) 
  5. 1/(1+3); Every time you win you triple your money, so you can lose three times for every time you win (betting the same amount), so that’s 0.25 = 25%. 
  6. I haven’t looked at this scientifically, but you’ve got around 25-30 guys who see significant time on a football team (47-man active roster). Hockey’s at 19-20 (20), baseball 18-22 or so (but pitchers make it weird, anyway 25 guys on the active roster), soccer 11-13 (18), and basketball’s down about 7-10 (13). 

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