SUPER BOWL LI: The Super Bowl began as a conventional sporting event but has become a cultural phenomenon, and we can expect plenty of fireworks both on and off the field this Sunday when the New England Patriots and Atlanta Falcons square off in Super Bowl LI.
Though many will be tuning in for the halftime show, celebrity cameos, and million-dollar television ads, they’ll also be treated to a first-class football game that will feature elite quarterback play and, potentially, lots and lots of scoring. Matt Ryan’s Falcons led the NFL with 33.8 points per game this season, but the Patriots weren’t far behind and Tom Brady has been spectacular in recent weeks, so a classic quarterback duel is a definite possibility. And after a blowout-filled postseason that has seen only two of ten games decided by fewer than 13 points, the casual fan probably deserves a Super Bowl with a little bit of drama.
But for those of us whose fandom can’t exactly be described as “casual”, the Super Bowl is more than just a great football game or an excuse to party: it’s quite possibly the year’s premier gambling event, a 4-hour spectacle in which everything from the length of the national anthem to the color of the Gatorade dumped on the winning coach can be wagered on. Much of it is just fun stuff that makes the viewing a bit more entertaining, but there are some serious opportunities for profit, too, and since this is the last time we’ll have NFL football for over 7 months, we may as well go out with a bang.
Here’s a look at what we can expect to see in Super Bowl LI, along with a few recommendations:
Atlanta Falcons (13-5) vs. New England Patriots (16-2)
BETDAQ Line: New England -3 (58.5)
*ATS= against the spread
The Patriots are 5-1 ATS in their last 6 playoff games
The Patriots are 5-0 ATS in their last 5 games vs. a team with a winning record
The Patriots are 1-4 ATS in their last 5 Super Bowls
The Falcons are 7-1 ATS in their last 8 games as underdogs
The Falcons are 5-1 ATS in their last 6 games overall
The Falcons are 2-6 ATS in their last 8 playoff games
The OVER is 6-1 in New England’s last 7 playoff games
The OVER is 4-0 in Atlanta’s last 4 playoff games
The OVER is 15-2-1 in Atlanta’s last 18 games overall
The betting favorite is 0-5 ATS in the last 5 Super Bowls
An Atlanta Angle
After watching them stampede over Seattle and Green Bay by 39 combined points, it’s clear that the Falcons are clicking on all cylinders right now and are playing their best football of the season. Matt Ryan is having an MVP-caliber year and he’s been positively surgical in these playoffs, throwing for 338 yards and 3 touchdowns in the Divisional Round win over the Seahawks and following that with a 392-yard, 4-touchdown performance in the NFC Championship Game.
The Falcons led the league in scoring thanks to an offense that is explosive yet supremely balanced, with an elite passing attack complemented by the effective thunder-and-lighting running back tandem of Tevin Coleman and Devonta Freeman. They’ll be facing a New England defense that, while impressive statistically, has not been tested much over the second half of the season and has certainly not had to deal with anything like what Atlanta will throw at them. Consider the last nine quarterbacks the Patriots have faced, starting with the most recent: Ben Roethlisberger, Brock Osweiler, Matt Moore, Ryan Fitzpatrick, Trevor Siemian, Joe Flacco, Jared Goff, Ryan Fitzpatrick (again), Colin Kaepernick. I think it’s fair to say that Roethlisberger and Flacco are the only above-average QBs of the bunch, and Flacco threw for 324 yards in a 7-point Baltimore loss while Roethlisberger totaled 314 through the air last week.
What, then, will Matt Ryan, Julio Jones, and the NFL’s most explosive offense do to that secondary? Probably the same thing they’ve done to everyone else in averaging 33.8 points per game and topping the 40-point mark five times. The Patriots have an efficient offense but they’re simply not on the same level when it comes to explosiveness and firepower, and their secondary has wilted anytime it’s faced a quality passing attack (which hasn’t been often). The Brady/Belichick mythos is strong, however, and many casual bettors will be all over New England thanks to sound logical principals like, “I just can’t imagine them losing.” Stuff like this has made the Pats consistently overvalued in the Super Bowl, which is what they’re just 1-4 against the spread (handicap) in their last five appearances.
A New England Angle
I understand being a contrarian. I understand looking for value in places where it might not be so obvious. But sometimes it’s best to just open our eyes and view the world as it is: the Patriots have won 9 games in a row, with 7 of the wins coming by double-digit margins. They’ve covered the spread in 15 of their 18 games, an incredible mark that’s especially impressive when you consider that they were favored in 17 of those games. They have a criminally underrated defense that led the NFL in points allowed this season and got steadily better as the year progressed, and their offense is led by some guy named Brady who was given some motivational fuel with the “Deflategate”-related suspension and produced one of the most brilliant seasons of his illustrious career.
We’ve seen Brady before in the Super Bowl… several times, actually. The adjectives that come to mind are ‘clutch’, ‘cold-blooded’, ‘unflappable’… do we even need to run through the numbers? Most passing yards in Super Bowl history, most touchdowns, most completions, 3-time MVP, 4-time champion… you get the idea. And say what you want about Atlanta’s offense, but there’s no defending the Falcons defense, a unit that finished this season ranked 25th in the NFL in total yards allowed. They surrendered 4.5 yards per rush and were even worse in the secondary, allowing more passing yards than all but four teams leaguewide.
I mean, this isn’t all that difficult; it’s not like we’re having to find some hidden matchup or underplayed angle: the Patriots have an excellent offense, one of the best in the league by any measure, and Atlanta has a terrible defense, one of the worst in the league by any measure. The Falcons will not be able to slow down Tom Brady. This is a fact. And while the Atlanta offense will likely do some damage of its own, a New England defense that allowed an NFL-best 15.6 points per game this season will surely be able to come up with a few stops. Then there’s Bill Belichick, one of the best coaches in all of sport and quite possibly a genuine Sith Lord who has harnessed the powers of darkness for his benefit. I’m sure Falcons headquarters has been bugged for days.. Belichick probably has Dan Quinn’s bowel movements charted out.
It’s genuinely difficult to bet against Belichick and Brady in a situation like this, but I truly believe that the Atlanta offense is the NFL’s most unstoppable force right now. The Patriots don’t do a great job of pressuring the passer, so Matt Ryan will be able to sit back and pick apart a very average secondary. Brady should have a big day as well, and I think the 58-point total, highest in Super Bowl history, will be challenged.
The public has been all over New England ever since the line was released and yet most sportsbooks have stuck by the NE -3 number, giving the “sharp” feel to the ATL +3 side. That stuff often turns out to be meaningless, but considering the Pats have covered just once in their past five Super Bowl appearances, the idea that they’re overvalued in this situation may not be too much of a stretch. Fully expecting a great game here, and I just think Brady may be outgunned in the end. Atlanta 33, New England 30
Props & Specials
Julio Jones MVP at 17.0: The Super Bowl MVP is generally regarded as a quarterback’s award, but non-QBs have won it in five of the past 12 years and a guy like Julio Jones is a great value at a price like 17.0. Jones has been a monster in Atlanta’s two playoff wins, racking up 247 yards and 3 touchdowns, and he averaged over 100 receiving yards per game in the 14 games he played this season. His size and physicality make him seem genuinely uncoverable, and Matt Ryan looks his way early and often. He’s certainly capable of posting MVP-worthy numbers.
Martellus Bennett MVP at 80.0: If you’re looking for a longshot you could do a lot worse than Bennett, who caught 55 passes and 7 touchdowns this season as New England’s primary tight end after Rob Gronkowski went down. He’s been heavily involved lately, catching 5 balls in the AFC Championship game, and the Falcons were terrible in the secondary this season, ranking 28th against the pass. Atlanta specifically struggled defending the tight end position, so Bennett should be open for much of this game, and we know how Brady loves to exploit a mismatch once he finds it. A two or three-touchdown game for Bennett is not out of the question here, and that would probably be enough to win him the award.
Tevin Coleman to score game’s first TD at 12.0: Coleman is the “thunder” in Atlanta’s thunder and lightning backfield tandem, and he’s heavily used as both a runner and receiver. As the team’s short-yardage back, he find the end-zone frequently, but the 1-yard plunge isn’t his only method of scoring: in the Falcons’ last four games he’s scored 4 touchdowns, with two of those coming via receptions. The “first TD scorer” bet is always a bit of a crapshoot, but I think Coleman offers some value at 12.0.
LeGarrette Blount to score TD (anytime) at 1.61: Blount is the bellcow in the New England backfield, rushing for nearly 1,200 yards and 18 touchdowns this season. He gets all the short-yardage and goal-line work, and considering the Patriots score so often that’s a lot of work indeed— Blount found paydirt in 14 of the team’s 18 games, including last week’s AFC Championship game. He should have a big day against Falcons defense that surrendered 4.5 yards per rush this season and will be at a disadvantage at the line of scrimmage. Blount is likely to find the end zone at least once in this game.
Mohamed Sanu to score TD (anytime) at 2.86: Though he’s second fiddle to Julio Jones in the Atlanta passing attack, Sanu has earned Matt Ryan’s trust and now plays a critical role in the offense. He caught five passes in the NFC Championship win over Green Bay and four against Seattle the previous week, and he’s now scored a touchdown in three straight games. Bill Belichick’s defenses are known for taking away the opposition’s best guy at all costs, and that would be Jones. If that happens— if the Patriots devote an inordinate amount of resources to stopping Jones— it could leave Sanu with a very tasty matchup. Remember: the Falcons average nearly 35 points per game. There are plenty of touchdowns to go around.
BONUS- National Anthem OVER: As of the time of this writing, BETDAQ has not yet posted a national anthem number. They’ve done so in years past and it will likely be posted in the coming days, but even if it’s not I can’t stay away from handicapping what has traditionally been my favorite Super Bowl prop. Sportsbooks around the world have the number listed anywhere from 2:08 to 2:15, so that’s the ballpark we’ll work with. Luke Bryan, who’s performing, sang the anthem at the MLB All-Star game back in 2012 and came in at just 2:03, so well under the projected number. This, combined with the fact that the under is 7-3 in the last 10 Super Bowls, has led many to look at that side, but there’s a newer bit of evidence that you should be made aware of: it seems that Mr. Bryan also sang the anthem in August of 2016, at the opening of Minnesota’s U.S. Bank Stadium. His time then was a whopping 2:29 (!), so it looks like he may have learned how to stretch things out a bit over the past few years. I have a hunch he’ll make his moment in the Super Bowl spotlight linger for as long as possible… gotta like that over.
Enjoy the game!!