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Pro Football's Championship Game Trends

When the two teams representing the AFC and NFC meet in Miami on February 4th, 2007, it will mark the 41st time that pro football’s championship game has been played. As the game has evolved into one of the most hyped events of the year, and a de-facto American holiday, focusing on the most followed, scrutinized and heavily bet-on sport in the United States, one would suspect that the bookmakers have put in their time and squeezed out any edge a gambler might have.

At first glance, the hold percentage of Nevada Sports Books (the percentage the books won out of all money wagered) would support that theory. On football in general, the theoretical hold for bookmakers is 4.5 percent on side and total wagers with bettors laying 11 to win 10. The past three years, however, the Nevada Books won 9.3 percent in 2006 on a record handle of over 94 million dollars bet, an astounding 17 percent in 2005, and 15.3 percent in 2004 on the championship game. When comparing the game itself, one might even consider it a coin-flip, with the NFC holding just a slight edge over the AFC with 21 wins in 40 games (52.5 percent).

Yet, certain trends do emerge when you study the history of the big game, and, if you look hard enough you find that sometimes the bettors win – like in 1995 when San Francisco pounded the Chargers 49 to 26 and the Nevada Books lost 0.6 percent.

In 1995, the 49ers were anywhere from 18- 20-point favorites and the total was 54. Generally speaking, the “public” loves to bet favorites and the “over,” but in the 24 years since a total has been available on the game, taking the over has actually been a winner going 15-9-1 (62.5 percent). In fact, parlaying the favorite and over has resulted in a win nine out of 25 times (36 percent), and with payout odds of 13-5 on a two-team parlay, this has been a profitable venture. Of course, the trend working against bettors is actually what happened last year as the Steelers (favorite) covered the spread and the final score was under the posted total of 47. This was just the second time in history that the favorite/under combination came in. The other instance being Dallas and Buffalo in 1994.

Putting it on the Line

Another notable aspect of the final game of the season is the fact that the bookmakers offer a much lower “priced” money-line wager on the favorites each year. A “money line” wager is simply a bet on which team will win straight-up—no point spreads involved—with the bettor paying a premium to try and win money on the favorite.

For instance, a team favored by a seven-point spread, like the Patriots over the Eagles in 2005, would normally have a money line of -330 or so, meaning that betting on the Patriots in this sense would cost you $3.30 to win $1.00. Conversely, taking the underdog means that you would receive a premium on your money-line wager, provided you win. A normal seven-point underdog would be around +250, meaning that for every $1.00 wagered a successful bet would pay out $2.50. The championship game is different due the amount of money that the “public” usually bets on the underdog in money-line wagers, lowering the price on the favorite. In the above example, the money line on the Patriots was only -265, with the Eagles +245, giving value to New England backers (and a win for anyone who chose this wager as Philadelphia ended up covering the seven-point spread). Consider this when you figure that the team favored to win has won straight-up 26 times (65 percent), while the favorite against the spread is just 19-18-3.

Where the Fun is

In addition to side and total wagering, the final Sunday of the season offers a plethora of proposition or “prop” wagers, from the slightly ridiculous “heads or tails on the coin flip” bet (and if you’re looking for a betting trend on that, please consider professional help), to player performance (running yards, catches, etc.), to situations in the game itself.

Some of these props you see year in and year out, and while some people will gladly ignore the actual odds just to have some fun “action,” there are some trends that stand out as well. For example, while the price on the prop “Will there be a score in the final two minutes of the first half?” is usually around -230 or -240 for “yes,” this prop has won seven straight years in a row. On the other hand, a Super Bowl has never gone into overtime, and while the “no” to this prop is usually too steep to attract many bettors (usually around -1,000 meaning a bettor is risking $100 to win $10), the “yes” at anywhere from +600 to +800 has yet to make anyone a dime.

Perhaps the simplest trend in the past decade: take the lower seeded playoff team to cover the point spread in the championship game. In the past 10 years, this trend has gone 7-1-2 ATS with only the Broncos vs. the Falcons in 1999 proving the exception.

The above trend is a great example of one of those things that doesn’t necessarily make a great deal of sense (unless you want to make the argument that the bookmakers are giving too much respect to the favorites, since the underdog has gone 5-3-2 in the same 10 year period). Twice in the past 10 years the lower seeded team has actually been favored (with both the Steelers in ’06 and the Ravens in ’01 covering), so it’s not a trend that relies specifically on getting the points. And therein lies the potential trap for bettors. It’s simply a trend that can be found by looking at the overwhelming amount of information available and finding a pattern that is currently working—and at some point it no longer will. So keep in mind trends may be interesting, but do your homework and make sure your handicapping backs up your bets.
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