Historical Super Bowl handicapping trends, systems

As we roll into the sports world’s biggest day, bettors are prepping for what figures to be an intriguing matchup between the Chiefs and the 49ers on Sunday in Super Bowl LIV. Not only do these very good teams have Pro Bowl-caliber players all over the field, but the matchup offers fresh faces as well, as neither team has been in the NFL’s biggest game for seven years. In fact, for Kansas City, it’s been 50 years!

The franchises and the teams’ styles of play couldn’t be much different, both this season and historically. The 49ers have a rich history that includes five Super Bowl championships, most recently in 1995. They got here primarily with defense, keyed by a dominant front four. For most of the early part of the season, San Francisco owned a well-balanced offensive attack. But the passing game slowed down the stretch, to the point that QB Jimmy Garoppolo threw just eight passes in the NFC title game. Kyle Shanahan, while boasting a championship pedigree through his father Mike and having coordinated the offense when Atlanta made the big game three years ago, is making his Super Bowl debut as a head coach.

The Chiefs haven’t won a Super Bowl since 1970, when they beat Minnesota 23-7. That game and a loss to Green Bay in the inaugural contest are the franchise’s only appearances. While the Kansas City defense played well in the second half of the season, it allowed 55 points in its two playoff games. Coach Andy Reid’s team is defined by its explosiveness on offense and the talent of star quarterback Patrick Mahomes, perhaps the next face of the NFL. Reid guided the Philadelphia Eagles to the Super Bowl in 2005, where they lost to New England 24-21.

Kansas City was a one-point favorite at press time, although several books had the number at 1.5. Either way, this figures to be the most hotly contested Super Bowl since 2015, according to the point spread. Underdogs have won and covered six of the last eight Super Bowls and are 9-3 ATS in the last 12. The total is sitting at 54.5, a fairly high number for a Super Bowl. Last year’s game showed a total of 57 at the time I wrote this piece but plummeted to 55.5 at kickoff as sharp money pounded the Under. That game wound up with only 16 points scored, so watch for any noticeable total moves the rest of this week. The teams have combined for 150 points in their two playoff games, the major reason for the lofty number.

Over the total seems to be the most popular wager so far, as the game opened at 51 but was driven up to 54.5. I expect it to drop simply because it shot up so quickly. Kansas City would seem to be the preferred side at this point after the game opened as pick-’em. If stereotypes hold, this is a prototypical matchup of elite offense versus elite defense, the sort we really haven’t seen since the 2014 game between Denver and Seattle.

It used to be said that with so much money on the line, this might be the one game each year when the house truly is looking for balanced action rather than taking a side. However, books have been known for taking sides in these games, and their wins and losses are well publicized in the regulated market. It was almost unanimously believed that the guys behind the counter were rooting for the Rams last year, as the New England dynasty has taken a big bite out of them recently. Neither of this year’s teams commands that type of respect, though those lesser in the know often bet the better quarterback. In that case, Mahomes is the clear option.

Miami’s beautiful Hard Rock Stadium hosts Super Bowl LIV, and while closer geographically to Kansas City than to San Francisco, neither team will boast any home-field advantage. The stadium was built in 1987, and Kansas City has played the Dolphins there 11 times, going 3-8. San Francisco has played the Dolphins there three times in the regular season, going 1-2. Perhaps more importantly, however, the 49ers won two Super Bowls in the building in 1989 and ’95, when it was known as Joe Robbie Stadium. Returning 25 years later, the franchise would like to win another title.

Besides being a neutral-field game, the other challenge facing bettors is that the Super Bowl offers some variation from the normal handicapping routine. Two weeks of rest and hundreds of proposition bets can make for a sometimes overwhelming task of deciding which ways to go. If you choose to wager on numerous options, be prepared to be conflicted near the end of the game. As always, it does pay to do your homework.

Part of your preparation should always involve looking at the history of the game. That is what I am here to do, as we look back at 53 years of Super Bowl action, uncovering the stats, trends and systems you’ll need to make educated selections.

Super Bowl Stat Angles

Over the two-week break, both teams will get to know the other’s tendencies inside and out, as their excellent coaching staffs will pore over game film and prepare a game plan so thoroughly that nothing will surprise them. Of course, then a play like the “Philly Special” can throw a wrench into that type of thinking. The teams that get to this point earn it, and since the NFC’s dominant run ended in the late ’90s, there really hasn’t been a physical mismatch in the Super Bowl except for Seattle’s 43-8 rout of Denver in 2014. That means the game most often comes down to little more than preparation and execution.

Most Super Bowl coaches turn to the things that brought them to the big game. In San Francisco’s case, it’s physicality on both sides of the ball. For Kansas City, it’s a dynamic offense led by Mahomes and an overlooked defense that looked dramatically better late than it did early.

The winner is usually the team that best controls the line of scrimmage, makes the most big plays and avoids catastrophic mistakes like turnovers. 

Rushing yards, passing yards per attempt, turnovers and time of possession are four key statistical categories we have found to have a great impact on Super Bowls. The following trends demonstrate the importance of these statistics.

— Teams that rush for more yards in the Super Bowl are 39-13 SU and 36-13-3 ATS (73.5%). The Patriots racked up 154 yards on Los Angeles last year, the most by an AFC team in this game since ’07.

— Teams that average more passing yards per attempt in the NFL title game are 42-11 SU and 36-14-3 ATS (72%). The Rams’ previously dynamic attack produced just 6.03 yards per pass attempt.

— The team that has more turnovers has won just six times SU and eight times ATS (8-35-8, 18.6%). One of the biggest reasons for the Broncos’ win in 2016 was forcing four turnovers by the Panthers. In last year’s game, the Patriots and Rams both turned it over once.

— Teams that win the time-of-possession battle are 38-15 SU and 37-13-3 ATS (74%), and the Patriots were the latest to win on that edge, holding the ball for over 33 minutes on the Rams.

— Teams that hold an edge in at least three of these four key statistical categories are 39-5 SU and 35-8-1 ATS (81.4%). Amazingly, three of those outright losses were in the last five games, but New England was able to restore order on this trend last year.

— Teams that win all four categories are 25-0 SU and 23-1-1 ATS (96%). The only ATS loss occurred in Super Bowl XXXIX in Philadelphia’s ATS win over the Patriots.

New England won three of the four categories last year and tied in turnovers. Naturally, turnovers are hard to predict, but the other stats should be relatively predictable for any advanced handicapper or service regularly using sophisticated statistical models for simulation. If you’re trying to predict turnovers by regular-season stats, the Chiefs were eighth in the NFL with a 8 turnover differential and the 49ers were 11th at 3.

Previous Super Bowl Trends and Systems

Since the turn of the century, what it takes to reach Super Bowl success has come and gone in waves. In the first few years of the 2000s, top seeds or teams that achieved lofty won-lost regular-season marks fulfilled expectations.

Then something changed. From 2006-13, seven teams that played on wild-card weekend played in the Super Bowl — and six won. Pittsburgh’s 2006 Super Bowl run was significant, as I believe it dramatically changed teams’ beliefs of what it takes to become a champion. The Steelers were the first No. 6 seed to win the Lombardi Trophy. The assumptions that winning in the regular season, earning a bye week and capitalizing on home-field advantage were the recipe to postseason success were now in doubt.

The last six Super Bowls may be a return to normalcy, with all but two competing teams having won at home in their conference title games after enjoying byes in the wild-card round. However, the fact that underdogs have won outright in four of those six games is just another wrinkle to deal with.

All of this has made it difficult on handicappers who rely on such things as strength ratings and historical templates that have demonstrated the best teams excelling when it mattered most — in the playoffs.

If what follows seems like information overload, perhaps all this knowledge will just make you the smartest fan at Sunday’s party. Start with these tidbits: Did you know that New England’s 13 points last year were the fewest for a Super Bowl winner? Did you know that the only two Super Bowls that had no touchdown passes occurred in the last four games? Every Super Bowl is memorable for some reason, so let’s make this year’s memorable for the best things for bettors — winning! After all, as Brent Musburger says, it’s all about cashin’ tickets!

ATS and Moneyline Trends

— Favorites in the Super Bowl are 33-20 SU and own an ATS mark of 24-26-3 (48%). However, over the last 18 years, underdogs own a 13-5 ATS (72.2%) edge, including 9-3 ATS in the last 12. The only five favorites to win and cover in that span were New England in ’17 and ’19, Green Bay in ’11, Indy in ’07 and Pittsburgh in ’06.

— Favorites of a touchdown or more are 3-2 SU but 0-4-1 ATS (0%) since the millennium. Still, there hasn’t been a favorite of that magnitude since the Patriots in 2008.

— The straight-up winner is 44-6-3 ATS (88%) in the 53 Super Bowls, and the dog has never covered a point spread without winning on a Super Bowl line of less than six points. 

— The NFC holds a 27-26 SU and 27-23-3 (54%) ATS edge all time and is 10-7 ATS since ’03. However, AFC teams have turned the tide recently with a 4-2 SU and ATS surge in the last six.

— The higher playoff seed is just 2-13-2 ATS (13.3%) in the last 23 Super Bowls. Equal seeds have matched up six times. This year we have the 49ers as a No. 1 against the Chiefs as a No. 2. Strangely, this is just the second No. 1-vs.-No. 2 matchup in the last 15 seasons.

— The team with the better record going into the Super Bowl is 29-17 SU all time but has lost nine of the last 10, including the Rams (13-3) versus the Patriots (11-5) a year ago. For 2020, the 49ers were 13-3, the Chiefs 12-4. Advantage, Chiefs?

— Teams playing in their first Super Bowl against an experienced club are 6-2-1 ATS in their last nine. But this trend is becoming more scarce and won’t apply Sunday. 

— San Francisco is 5-1 SU and 4-2 ATS in its previous Super Bowls, having last lost 34-31 to the Ravens in ’13 as a 4.5-point favorite. Kansas City is 1-1 SU and ATS previously but hasn’t played in a Super Bowl in 50 years.

— The average winning score is 30.1, with the average losing score 16.1, an average winning margin of 14. However, 15 of the last 16 games have been decided by 14 or fewer points, a sign of a much more competitive era in the NFL.

— The Giants of 2008 became the first team in 33 years to win the Super Bowl without hitting the 20-point mark. The Patriots did it again last year with the lowest winning total ever, 13 points.

— Since the epic 35-31 duel between Pittsburgh and Dallas in Super Bowl XIII in 1979, 24 teams have hit the 30-point mark. Their record: 22-2 SU and 21-3 ATS. Only New England, a 32-29 winner over Carolina in ’04, San Francisco in 2013 and New England in ’18 failed to cover their point spreads. 

— There have been 21 Super Bowl teams that have failed to reach the 14-point mark. Their record: 1-20 SU and ATS (4.8%). This is another trend illustrating just how improbable the Patriots’ win last year was.

— More on the recent competitiveness of the game: Of the 16 games to be decided by less than a touchdown, seven have been in the last 12 years.

Over/Under Trends

— In the 35 Super Bowls that have had totals, the Over is 21-13-1 (61.7%). Last year’s game was just the second in the last seven years to go Under the total, and it did so in record fashion, falling short of the posted number by 39 points.

— The Super Bowl has averaged 46.2 PPG, but it’s 50.4 PPG in the era in which totals have been posted. The average posted total has been 47.8, nearly a touchdown lower than this year’s number at press time.

— The ’18 Super Bowl was one of only 15 in history in which both teams reached 20 points. Eleven of 12 that had totals were Overs. Both teams are projected for at least 26 points in Sunday’s game when using the line/total combination.

Teams’ Regular-Season Offensive Statistics Trends

— Teams that scored more points per game during the regular season are only 5-12 ATS in the last 17 Super Bowls. San Francisco outscored Kansas City by 1.7 PPG in the regular season 29.9 to 28.2.

— The ability to run the football has been much overrated in Super Bowl success. Teams that averaged more rushing yards per game are just 4-11 ATS since ’05. Those that averaged more yards per rush are 6-9 ATS in that span. San Francisco was significantly better on both accounts in the regular season.

— Overall passing yardage has also meant little to Super Bowl success, with teams owning an edge in total offensive passing yardage going only 7-11 ATS in the last 18 games. This edge goes to Kansas City by about 44 YPG.

— Big-play potential hasn’t proven a key ingredient to Super Bowl victories, as teams gaining more passing yards per attempt are on a 6-7 ATS stumble. Surprisingly, chalk up another edge to the 49ers, as they gained an impressive 7.9 yards per attempt compared with Kansas City’s 7.8.

— Teams that generated more yardage offensively in the regular season also own no edge when it comes to Super Bowl success, losing eight straight games SU and ATS. Those with yards-per-play edges are on that same losing skid. Unfortunately, these edges are split for 2020, with San Francisco having gained more yardage but the Chiefs holding the edge in yards per play.

— Offensive yards per point has proven to be an effective statistical indicator for fading teams, as teams that have averaged fewer yards per point are just 5-12 ATS in the last 17 Super Bowls. Both teams ranked in the top four in the NFL in this statistic, but the 49ers were 0.8 yards per point better.

— The offensive turnovers statistic has also been quite misleading in Super Bowl handicapping, with teams owning an edge in this stat going just 5-11 ATS in the Super Bowl since ’03. Kansas City has the turnover edge this time around, ranking No. 5 in the NFL in giveaways. San Francisco was 20th.

— Teams that converted third-down opportunities more efficiently in the regular season also have a poor trend mark, going 6-12 ATS in the last 18 Super Bowls. Kansas City owns the edge here, 47.6% to 45.0%.

Teams’ Regular-Season Defensive Statistics Trends

— Teams that allowed fewer points per game during the regular season are 5-8 ATS in the last 13. Kansas City hopes to turn that trend around, having allowed 0.2 PPG fewer than the 49ers.

— Teams that allowed fewer rushing yards per game and fewer yards per rushing attempt have gone just 6-12 ATS in the last 18 Super Bowls, giving the statistical handicapper little reason to consider it. Kansas City owns the edge in total rushing yardage allowed, but the 49ers were better per attempt.

— Super Bowl playoff teams with an edge in defensive passing yardage allowed over their opponents are 11-6 ATS over the last 17 seasons. This edge goes to the 49ers, as they were the best in the NFL in 2019.

— Teams with the edge in defensive pass efficiency are 6-2 ATS over the last eight years but just 6-7 ATS in the last 13 Super Bowls. Chalk up the edge in this stat to the 49ers by 0.9 yards per attempt.

— Teams that allowed less yardage defensively are also just 5-8 ATS since ’07 but 5-3 ATS since ’12 in the Super Bowl. Teams with an edge in yards per play are 6-7 ATS since ’07 but 6-2 ATS in the last eight. San Francisco was the better of the two this season in these statistics.

— Defensive yards per point should be given serious consideration for Super Bowl Sunday only if you are fading the team with the edge, 5-9 ATS since ’06. Kansas City was third best in the NFL.

— Teams that forced more turnovers in the regular season than their opponents are 9-9 ATS since ’02 in Super Bowl play, with no streaks greater than two either way. San Francisco forced three more turnovers than Kansas City this season.

— Teams that stopped third-down opportunities more efficiently in the regular season are on a 6-4 ATS run in the last 10 Super Bowls. San Francisco ranked second in the NFL in this category this season, holding teams to just 33.3%.

While not as glaringly as in recent Super Bowl matchups, it appears that more statistical edges in this year’s contest side with San Francisco, with the biggest margins coming in pass defense. That is obviously going to be important, as the 49ers will need to contain Mahomes. But as you can see from the records, it hasn’t actually proven to be advantageous to be better statistically in recent years. In fact, far more fade angles are associated with these edges than actual advantages. It seems as if we can throw any statistical handicapping out the window. Fortunately, we came up with some other points that might help, most notably the trends regarding underdogs, won-lost/seed records and outright winners.

Another factor is that Mahomes missed two starts around midseason with a knee injury. In those games the Chiefs were 1-1 and averaged fewer than 7 yards per pass attempt. Kansas City lost the game he returned from injury at Tennessee but has rattled off eight straight outright and ATS wins since. 

One final thing: If you recall the last three issues, we documented the great success bettors have enjoyed simply following the line and total moves. We wish we could just suggest to follow the money, but it’s not that easy. Bettors are only 7-5 ATS in the last 12 Super Bowls in which they moved an opening line and just 7-6 in the last 13 in which they moved totals. However, both were winners in each of the last two years, so perhaps this is an emerging strategy. If that is the case, I noted that the point spread had moved to Kansas City and the total toward the Over in early wagering. Be sure to follow that action in the hours leading up to kickoff if you tend to believe in this type of analysis. 

Good luck on Super Bowl LIV and enjoy all the festivities.

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