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When Betting on Super Bowl XL, Know the Stats.

From a betting perspective, the Super Bowl is the most scrutinized game in all of professional sports. Everyone has an opinion on who will cover the spread: professional handicappers, sports broadcasters and writers, not to mention your friends and co-workers. The problem is, there can only be one winner, and given the myriad compelling arguments to support both sides, you're often left feeling your only option is to flip a coin to decide.

The answer to this predicament is to forget what everyone else thinks, and examine the hard statistics. Because statistics don't lie. To get you started, let's examine the Super Bowls from the 1990 season and beyond.

The first place to look is the records of favorites and underdogs. Favorites over the last 16 years are an impressive 12-4 (75 percent) straight up in Super Bowls, but only 7-7-2 (50 percent) against the spread (ATS). Of note, however, underdogs have covered the last four Super Bowls.

So why have underdogs been so dominant lately? It has a lot to do with the onset of parity in the NFL. Think about those Super Bowls of the late 1980s and early '90s, the ones that pitted dominant NFC teams from Dallas and San Francisco against the likes of Buffalo, Denver and San Diego. Did the AFC teams even have a chance back then? Considering the average margin of victory for the NFC from 1990-95 was 22.3 points, it appears not. No wonder favorites covered five out of six of those games.

The next step is to look at the offenses and defenses of the opposing teams. In terms of points for and against, consider how each team was ranked in the NFL that season.

Note that the last five winners have all had a defense that ranks higher than their offense. This comes on the heels of nine straight Super Bowls where the winner had a better, or equal, ranked offense. Also note that you can still win the Super Bowl with an average offense, it's just that you'd better have a great defense to go along with it (Baltimore in 2001 and Tampa Bay in 2003).

A little more analysis turns up other interesting stats. Since 1990, the top-ranked defense has won five Super Bowls, while the league's No. 1 offense has done one better, earning six titles. The difference is, a top-ranked defense has not lost since 1990 when San Francisco beat Denver, 55-10. In contrast, the No. 1 scoring unit has lost three times. In fact, after 1990, defenses ranked in the top three are a perfect 9-0 straight up.

In addition, there's no evidence to prove that a good offense can carry a team by itself to a championship. Of the six top-ranked offensive teams that have won the Super Bowl since 1990, not one of them had a defense ranked below sixth in the league.

There is also a very good wagering rationale to get behind good defensive teams in the big game. The Super Bowl is the game that sees the largest number of bets in North America. As a result, there is an incredible amount of novice bettors playing the game, and they tend to prefer teams that can score. This attraction to the high-scoring teams (who are usually the favorites, Denver in 1997 being the lone exception) drives the point spread up as books try to balance action. What happens is that an imbalance is created and the advantage swings to those who play the defensive underdogs.

In addition to the public's tendency to back high-scoring teams, they also tend to flock to the media darlings of the moment. Perfect example of late: the New England Patriots.

In the 2004 Super Bowl, the Patriots faced the Carolina Panthers, an unknown team to most casual fans. The Patriots, who had won the title just two seasons earlier, were a great regular-season team that year, posting a 14-2 record.

On the other hand, Carolina had shocked the world by reaching the Super Bowl with playoff victories in St. Louis and Philadelphia.

When the line fell at New England -7, not many bettors gave the Panthers a chance.

Lo and behold, the Patriots needed a last-second Adam Vinatieri field goal to eke out a 32-29 win. And with Carolina covering the spread, the sportsbooks in Las Vegas held on to a record amount of bettors' money.

In 2005, the Patriots, with an ever-growing legion of backers, made the Super Bowl again. This time they were set to face the Philadelphia Eagles, who faced the possibility of playing without star receiver Terrell Owens.

Again, bettors loaded up on New England -7 to cover. And again, the Patriots won the game but failed to cover. The result was another record winfall for the sportsbooks.

If recent history is any indication, you'll want to back a team that has a great defense when you're betting on the Super Bowl this year. Also, be sure to get a feeling for where the public is moving the line.

Bettors should shop for the best lines with the understanding that not every sportsbook is going to list the same odds. This is particularly important if you're looking to gain a half-point on the point spread. While most sportsbooks, including, offer you the opportunity to "buy" points to change the line, that method of betting reduces your payout. Ideally, you want to have a number in mind for the Super Bowl line then seek out that number. If you like the underdog, that can mean being patient.

Generally, the public prefers favorites, so the rule of thumb is to play favorites early and underdogs late. So, if this trend applies to the Super Bowl, you can expect the line to move up as gameday nears. Perhaps you think the underdog can keep the game close. If so, then keep your eye on the line as it moves, then jump on it when you're comfortable.

by Calvin Ayre, CEO
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