As another NFL season winds to a close, the Patriots find themselves in a familiar position: favorites in the Super Bowl. But it wasn’t certain they would hold the honor until nearly the last minute.
For much of the season, the Patriots were considered a tier below the best teams; for months, that group included the New Orleans Saints, the Kansas City Chiefs and the Los Angeles Rams. Throughout the season, bookmakers offering early Super Bowl wagering made the NFC entrant — whomever it turned out to be — a 3-point favorite over a generic AFC representative.
As the big game got closer, however, oddsmakers began offering odds on hypothetical Super Bowl matchups. The Rams were generally listed as a 1-point favorite over the Patriots as recently as a week ago.
Then the teams played their conference championship games.
“Everything is about public perception: What have you done for me lately?” said Scott Cooley, a spokesman for the online gambling site BetDSI. “As we saw the Rams game unfold, they were down the entire game, they benefited from an egregious miscall. Maybe this team is not as strong as we thought they were.
“The Patriots were dominant on the road over a Chiefs squad that was favored. The manner in which the last two quarters unfolded: marching down the field and scoring in overtime — the Rams won in less convincing fashion.”
Immediately after the Super Bowl matchup was confirmed, many bookmakers made Rams-Patriots a pick ‘em game. Bettors reacted quickly.
“We opened at even,” said Marco Blume, trading director at Pinnacle Sports. “Then the action came almost immediately on the Patriots.” All that action has led Pinnacle to recalculate, and make the Patriots a 2-point favorite.
“We know the Patriots are a public team,” Cooley said. “They are always going to be wagered on by the Average Joe bettor. The Patriots, the Cowboys, the Packers. They are going to blindly bet on those teams.”
Cooley identified the key moment when the Patriots started gaining respect as the divisional round against the Chargers. “Smart pro bettors were betting the Chargers, though the public still liked the Patriots,” he said. “The spread went from Patriots by 5, down to 3½. And the Pats crushed them.”
At that point, casual fans and smart bettors alike started to realize that “this isn’t a feeble Patriots team,” Cooley said. “Maybe Gronk isn’t doing the damage he once did, but you’d be hard-pressed to bet against them.”
Could the line, now 2 at most places, keep moving to Patriots by 3 or even 4 by a week from Sunday? Probably not, several bookmakers said.
“We’re going to reach peak on the Patriots soon,” Blume said. “Sharp customers may look to get a bargain on the Rams. People are waiting. The sharps have a number in their heads, and as soon as they see a chance, they will pounce on you.”
The Patriots’ current status as 2-point favorites defies computer rankings, though, which are the basis of most lines. In Jeff Sagarin’s main ranking, the Patriots are a mere four-hundredths of a point better than the Rams. In his Predictor rating, in which many bettors put even more stock, the Rams are actually a half-point better.
But the bets keep coming in on New England.
“People love Tom Brady,” Blume said.
It wasn’t always this way. In the first Super Bowl of the Brady era, in February 2002, the Patriots were 14-point underdogs to the 14-2 St. Louis Rams. The Patriots won anyway.
Bettors learned. The Patriots have been Super Bowl favorites six times since then, ranging from 2½ points to 12. In one game, against the Seahawks after the 2014 season, the line was even. The Pats won four of those seven games, but covered the spread in only two of them.
Regardless of who wins Feb. 3 in Atlanta, one thing seems sure: Points will be scored.
The over-under on the game is between 57 and 58, potentially the highest in Super Bowl history. The previous record was 57, for Atlanta-Patriots two years ago and New Orleans-Indianapolis in 2010.
Thanks to rule changes designed to protect players, the trend in football has been toward higher-scoring games; over-unders in the 1960s were generally in the 30s. But that is not the only factor. Both of this year’s teams are seen as offensive powerhouses with slightly suspect defenses.
“If it was Bears-Ravens, we’d have a total in the 40s,” Cooley said.
Don’t expect a move into the 60s, however. Blume suggested it had topped out already. “I expect it to close a little bit lower,” he said.