Some thoughts on the Super Bowl

Expectations, Bets, Props

It’s Super Bowl Sunday! And it’s a weird one. Typically, I’d be preparing this morning to host a party for the big game, but this year I find myself wondering what I’m supposed to do between now and the game. I have friends who seem to be treating this morning like any old weekend day. But despite not having a dog in the fight, I’m anxious — maybe it’s the gambling, maybe it’s the realization there won’t be another official football game for about seven months after today.

At any rate, I had a busy week preparing for the Super Bowl, so I thought I’d pass along some links and thoughts. My breakdown of the matchup landed me on Kansas City even after they’d moved to -3.5 earlier in the week, but they’ve since moved back to -3 and I have to say I’m a bit perplexed by the line.

But history would maybe support the Bucs. The last team to be favored by more than a field goal was the Patriots’ attempt at back-to-back championships against the Eagles a couple years ago. The Eagles of course won the game outright.

In fact, over the past 11 Super Bowls, only four teams have been favored by more than a field goal — and the underdog won outright each time. Anytime the market tends to believe strongly in a side, it seems not just to be overconfidence but a sign that the opposition is perhaps more likely to win. It dates back further to two of the biggest surprises of all time, both of which included Tom Brady.

Back in his first Super Bowl, Brady and the Patriots beat the Greatest Show on Turf Rams despite being 14-point underdogs. Then in 2007, the last time a team was favored by double digits in a Super Bowl (per Pro-Football-Reference), the undefeated Patriots fell to the Giants despite a 12.5-point line.

Interestingly, every Super Bowl from 2001 to 2009 featured one side favored by more than a field goal. And in those nine games, the underdog won outright four times, while they lost but covered the spread three more times. Just twice did the favorite win and cover.

That fed directly into the period from 2010 to today where we’ve been far more likely to see a close line in the Super Bowl. And as I noted, the few times in the past decade the market has deviated from that and gotten overconfident, an upset has occurred, almost like clockwork. A few of those times, it was pretty clear that the market overvalued a particular side’s offensive prowess and overlooked the subtle importance of a strong defense, particularly an effective pass rush.

That happens to be the Bucs’ biggest path to success here. Kansas City is without starting tackle Eric Fisher after he tore his Achilles in the AFC Championship, and the Bucs’ fearsome edge-rushing duo of Jason Pierre-Paul and Shaquil Barrett combined for five sacks of Aaron Rodgers in the NFC Championship. Suddenly you have to ask yourself whether history is destined to repeat itself.

My linked breakdown of the game above seems to overlook some of these trends. It focuses on these specific teams, and argues based on recent results that the Chiefs aren’t getting enough love. So if I know the history, why am I still so confident in Kansas City? It’s a question I’ve asked myself, but I do have a couple answers.

First, the past is always prologue in sports, but it’s not necessarily predictive. All the past Super Bowls I just referenced are still a reasonably small sample, and few if any of them align with this game.

That’s because of the second reason. The league has changed. Defense might have won championships in the past, but everything in the NFL has gotten tougher for defenses over the years, particularly in the past half decade. Maybe the betting public forgot to properly value great defense in the past, but many of those situations — including the two major upsets prior to 2010 — happened before emphasis on the way pass defense rules were enforced ushered in a new era of offensive schemes and versatility. The Chiefs are the ideal form of this new era, utilizing motion and short passing effectively to set up downfield passing, almost entirely ignoring the rushing game. They run their top receiver, Tyreek Hill, freely across the middle of the field in a way offensive schemes of a decade or more ago just couldn’t do with undersized speedsters. Things like this create fundamentally different challenges for defensive coverages; the entire game is now played differently. And at the pinnacle, when you get to the elite of the elite in the Super Bowl, I believe the very best offenses now have an advantage (and will maintain it into the future) over the very best defenses.

We can see this trend in college football, where many of the wide open Air Raid concepts first gained popularity. Alabama is the symbol of long-term dominance there, but while a decade ago they won championships through defense and a running game, they (and the entire SEC) have become far more explosive offensively in recent seasons. With that, the College Football Playoff contests we’ve seen over the past few years pitting the best teams at that level against each other have often been won by offenses in high-scoring shootouts.

The NFL is different, certainly. But that radical transformation we’ve seen at the highest levels of college football, from the SEC to the CFP, has picked up steam. Scoring was up all season in 2020, and just last week, we saw both Conference Championship matchups go well over their game totals. The Super Bowl has an over/under of a massive 56 points, a number that has actually come down 1.5 points from its open at 57.5. Vegas couldn’t have been clearer when it set the line that it didn’t want to be liable to a ton of over bets.

So while I very much may be proven wrong — it wouldn’t be the first time — I remain confident in the Chiefs, despite the -3 number. I also think if you like the Bucs to be competitive, you probably should just bet the under. To the extent that offenses now win championships, the Chiefs are the best modern team you can find. The evolution of the sport and the new concepts introduced over time mean they are probably the most versatile and explosive offense in the history of the game, forcing you to stop them in so many new and challenging ways as to be inevitable.

Todd Bowles is a fantastic defensive coordinator for the Buccaneers, and I have no doubt he’ll have a sharp gameplan put together. But even if they do everything right, it’s not likely the Buccaneers will be able to stop the Chiefs with regularity. If they do, they still have to capitalize on offense, and in my writeup this week I talked a lot about how fortunate they’ve been with turnover luck this postseason just to get here. There are no sure things in football, especially when there’s an extra week of preparation involved. Crazy things happen all season long, and we see teams far worse than Tampa pull out upsets out of nowhere. The recent history of the Super Bowl is littered with such results.

But I do still think we’re finally in for a favorite holding serve, and as with any time I have a strong lean, I’m very excited to watch this one play out. I also wrote up my favorite prop bets and how I’m playing the touchdown market this week, if you’re looking for more. Whatever happens, I’ll be sad to see football go for now, but I’ll be around to look ahead to 2021 through the offseason.