By Anirudh Suresh
There’s nearly nothing America loves more than its annual 5-month dosage of football, topped off by the most-watched television event of the year: the Super Bowl. The Super Bowl offers a unique flavor to sports that most professional athletic finales don’t: whereas in many American sports, a best-of-seven series usually undercuts an underdog’s chances at pulling the rug from under the favorite, in football, only 60 minutes separates each team from everlasting glory. The frequent irreplaceability of star players in critical positions and the game’s fast-paced momentum swings make an upset much more likely. Typically, however, these notions are built off people’s intuition regarding the sport and its biggest stage; what exactly does data surrounding the Super Bowl have to say about underdogs’ chances of pulling an upset? What does it say about the chances of this year’s 3-point underdogs, the Atlanta Falcons, in their quest to overcome the perennial contention of Belichick’s Patriots?
Betting-line data (per VegasInsider.com) can be used to estimate the perception and existence of a favorite in each of the 50 Super Bowls. This data reveals that a respectable 30% of underdogs have won the Super Bowl; in fact, it shows that while games won by favorites are decided on average by 7.83 points, underdogs win by a much larger average margin of victory of 20.17 points. Delving more deeply into the 15 underdog victories reveals that 9 of the victories have come in games with a favorite of 5 or fewer points. Indeed, in the 21 games with a favorite of 5 or fewer points, 8 have ended with the underdogs climbing the podium to accept the Lombardi Trophy. That 38.10% bodes very well for the Falcons, as they have a fairly significant shot at winning the league.
Recent data gives them an ever better shot at winning the Super Bowl. Starting with Super Bowl XXXIV in 2000, underdogs have won 7 out of 17 Super Bowls, and in the 9 games with favorites of five or fewer points, the underdog has pulled out a win in 5. In addition, the NFL/NFC teams in the Super Bowl have emerged victorious 26 times, while AFL/AFC teams have won 24 times. In essence, none of this data provides any significant support for a Patriots victory; the game truly is up for grabs. The plotted data for betting line vs. final score difference is fairly uncorrelated, for even though there is a general tendency for favorites to (quite fittingly) win the Super Bowl, the relationship between predicted score differential and actual differential is incredibly scattered. Particularly in the case of games expected to be close, the relationship is even more fuzzy.
The Super Bowl then takes on the feel of a “who wants it more” finale as opposed to a single chapter of a grueling 7-game series that almost seems fated to end with the “more qualified” team holding the trophy. Perhaps it’s not that simple; there certainly is the chance of less visible trends and factors under the surface-level data that tend to affect the outcomes of the games. However, the relative shortage of any apparent trends in Super Bowl when contrasted with the finales of other sports helps to explain the game’s unmatched popularity.