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Super Bowl Point Spreads: Betting Super Bowl 54 Against the SpreadBy Kurt Boyer
No National Football League team would ever complain about its margin-of-victory in the Super Bowl. After all, the operative word is “victory.”
But the margin-of-victory is all that a big chunk of Las Vegas cares about.
The Super Bowl’s point spread, like all point spreads, is a betting market based on “spotting” points to the underdog and “taking” points away from the favorite prior to kickoff. The point spread attracts the most annual interest from non-gambling journalists because it represents a scientific, all-things-considered prediction of a Super Bowl winner and the winning margin.
Not that the point spread is always “scientific” by Super Bowl Sunday. Any Super Bowl spread is subject to line-movement for at least 12 days, opening in Las Vegas (and at online sportsbooks) the Monday of the week prior to the game. Super Bowl betting action which is unbalanced, or heavier on a favorite or underdog’s side of the point spread, can cause the number to move as bookmakers work to balance the “handle” evenly for the AFC and NFC representatives.
However, due to the enormous amounts of money wagered on the Super Bowl, and thanks to the full focus of each sportsbook on handicapping the title tilt, sometimes odds-makers choose to treat the point spread for the Greatest Show on Earth a little differently than a normal NFL game.
Let’s take a closer look at point-spread betting on the biggest day in American sports.
What Does a Typical Super Bowl Spread Look Like?
A point spread on the Super Bowl will be displayed with 2 numbers next to each team. There’s the “number,” always listed above or to the left of the payoff odds. The number represents the expected margin-of-victory for the favored NFL club. The 3-digit odds represent the amount of money which must be risked by the bettor to receive a payout of $100 with a win, usually (-110) or (-105).
The Super Bowl favorite’s point spread is displayed with a “minus” symbol next to a whole number or a halved fraction, such as (-4) or (-4.5). Gamblers picking the favorite “against the spread” must hope that the team wins by more than 4 points – a 1, 2, or 3-point victory or a straight-up loss loses the wager.
An underdog’s point spread is displayed with a “+” symbol, indicating the number of points “spotted” to the team before the Super Bowl kicks off. Underdog point-spread gamblers are hoping that the team will “cover” by winning by any amount or losing by any amount smaller than the point spread. If the underdog’s point spread is (+6) and the club loses by 5 points, the bettors still win the payout.
If a Super Bowl finishes with the favorites winning by the exact margin shown on the point spread, say 24-17 on a (-7) spread, then bets are returned in-full in an outcome known as a “push.”
Are Super Bowl Point Spreads Wide or Tight?
With less than 2 weeks to go before Super Bowl LIV in Miami, Florida, the AFC-representative Kansas City Chiefs and NFC-representative San Francisco 49ers are prompting betting action on a tight point spread of KC (-1.5). If action is heavy on the 49ers during the opening week of Super Bowl betting, the spread for the big game could get even tighter. But if enough gamblers (and bookmakers) believe that Kansas City will win the NFL title, then the line could go further in the Chiefs’ direction.
Forgive the use of gambling lingo if it’s unfamiliar to you – Super Bowl point spreads are not referred to as “big” and “small” even though the number can be small or big. Closely-handicapped point spreads (within a TD margin-of-victory) are generally referred to as “tight,” as opposed to a “wide” point spread like (-17) or (-21) which suggests an expected blow-out result in the game.
Super Bowl point spreads are almost always tight. The conference champions of the NFC and AFC have each endured grueling regular seasons to finish high in the standings, and have posted at least 2 (sometimes 3) playoff victories over NFL contenders. It stands to reason that Super Bowl opponents will be viewed as at least somewhat evenly-matched by bookmakers and the betting public.
There are exceptions, of course. The widest consensus point-spread on a Super Bowl was offered to NFL bettors prior to Super Bowl XXIX in 1995, when Steve Young and the powerful San Francisco 49ers were favored by (-18.5) points over the upstart San Diego Chargers. San Francisco “covered” the favorite’s point spread with a 49-26 victory which was not as close as the score suggests.
A close runner-up is the (-18) point spread that was offered on the Baltimore Colts prior to Super Bowl III in 1969. The Colts did not “cover” against the American Football League’s New York Jets that year – in fact Joe Namath and the unheralded Jets won 19-7 in an historic upset, covering the underdog’s side of the point spread by a stunning 30-point margin.
Why a Super Bowl Spread Can Change Quickly
Super Bowl betting action causes lines to move up and down, and almost no sports event in the world can hold a candle to the amount of action the event produces.
A majority of bets placed on the NFC or AFC representative to cover the point spread will usually lead to the spread moving “toward” that team, shrinking an underdog’s number of points-spotted or expanding a favorite’s number of points given away.
The media’s punditry can cause a point spread to shift. Suppose the Los Angeles Rams have opened as a (-3) favorite to beat an AFC representative in the Super Bowl, but every “talking head” on TV and most of the newspaper editorialists in the United States argue that the Rams are likely to win by 2 or 3 touchdowns and claim the Lombardi Trophy in style. When gamblers are influenced to pick the confidently-touted favorites, action on the Rams increases, and the point spread moves to (-4) or (-5) within a matter of 24 or 48 hours.
Recreational bettors often pick the Super Bowl favorite on the moneyline, since the part-time bettor is more focused on winning her bet than worried about the payoff odds. It’s not efficient to bet on (-250) favorites in the Super Bowl unless you win at least 3 times in a row – otherwise the tactic will lead to a negative return-on-investment. But to the gambler who is purely betting on the Super Bowl for fun and no other reason, picking likely winners is more important than turning a profit over time. The phenomenon of “soft” or “dull” action toward the favorite causes moneylines to shift (and promise a higher payoff on the underdog) as the Super Bowl draws near.
However, the effects of recreational betting on a Super Bowl point spread can be more subtle. For example, a “tight” point spread of (-2.5) might provoke occasional sports-bettors to pick the favorites, figuring that most games are won by at least a field-goal margin. The bookmaker can rest assured that plenty of games are decided by a mere point or 2 points – a factor overlooked by the client. But when there’s a wide point spread of more than a single touchdown, recreational gamblers can sometimes be persuaded to pick the underdog, which then simplifies his cheering interest in the game. If it’s a well-contested Super Bowl with a close finish, then the (+14) point spread bettor is feeling good in the 4th quarter no matter which team is slightly ahead – leaving the nail-biting anxiety to moneyline-takers.
Effects on Player Injury on Super Bowl Spreads
Injuries can also cause a Super Bowl point spread to shift. Coaches are cautious not to allow too much contact or fatigue during pre-Super Bowl practices, but accidents can still happen. More often, a previously injured player will be listed as “doubtful” or “questionable” on an injury report released following the NFC or AFC Championship Game, informing the opening point spread line (and moneyline odds) which remains fairly stable until the final injury reports are released. When that occurs, the spread may change drastically as handicappers and bettors realize who definitely will or will not play in the Super Bowl.
Obviously, an injury to a starting QB is the worst kind of blow a Super Bowl team can suffer. If Aaron Rodgers leads the Green Bay Packers to a Super Bowl bid but is injured in the NFC Championship Game, news of his injury status a week before the final battle in February could cause the point spread to shift as far as 10 points in either direction.
There are exceptions to the rule, of course. Some NFL teams have a backup QB who’s as highly-regarded as the starter. Other clubs have an effective starting QBs whom it’s trendy to smear on social media. If Mitch Trubisky of the Chicago Bears is injured prior to a Super Bowl bid, betting action on Chicago may actually go up thanks to low-information gamblers heeding popular opinion. In truth, Trubisky is a more-accomplished QB than his 2019-20 backup Chase Daniel, but that doesn’t stop “Negative Nancy” fans from lauding Daniel as the superior player and Trubisky as a no-talent hack.
Late San Francisco 49ers head coach Bill Walsh argued that there were 2 kinds of NFL injuries – wounds to players who can be replaced without much change in the club’s overall form (i.e. a “next man up” scenario) and injuries to real difference-makers, such as MVP candidates or skill-players who reach the Pro Bowl year after year. When a superstar can’t play in the Super Bowl, the effects of the injury are much more noticeable – on the gridiron, on the scoreboard, and on the point spread.
However, in the modern era it might be wise to add a 3rd category of injury – unimportant injuries. Many naïve bettors see a laundry-list of 15 or 20 injuries when visiting a Super Bowl team’s info at handicapping sites and assume that an NFC or AFC champion’s locker room resembles a casualty ward. They may have never looked at a full, administrative NFL roster, which is 3-deep or deeper at almost all positions throughout the season. Perhaps an offensive guard “on IR with a ligament tear” has been inactive and factored-out of the club’s plans for a while, but he’s still under contract for the year and must be listed on the official injury sheet. It shouldn’t affect the Super Bowl spread at all, but it may, if enough “scrubs” number what appears to be a huge list of sidelined players.
Walsh would be proud to see the 2019-20 San Francisco 49ers get to the big dance with few crucial injuries. However, there are some exceptions as there always are in a brutal sport. Defensive end Dee Ford is nicked-up but listed “probable” for Super Bowl 54, but 49er RB Tevin Coleman was sidelined with an arm ailment in the NFC Championship Game and is listed “questionable” for Miami.
On the AFC side, Kansas City is dealing with a few injury issues of its own as running back LeSean McCoy and defensive backs Morris Claiborne and Juan Thornhill are all listed as questionable.
As of the Monday prior to Super Bowl 54, Coleman’s bid to play for a Lombardi Trophy is in doubt. Kyle Shanahan has not given reporters much to go on concerning the tailback’s injury status, but that’s usually an indication that coaches are concerned about an athlete’s readiness to play, and could be making contingency plans behind the scenes. Meanwhile, Thornhill has been placed on Injured Reserve and will not play on Sunday, but Claiborne, McCoy, and star tight end Travis Kelce are looking good to go and may even be fully 100% by kickoff. Overall, Kansas City appears to be getting better injury news than San Francisco – just another reason why the Chiefs are maintaining a (-1.5) favorite’s edge on the point spread.
When Sportsbooks Stick Stubbornly to the Super Bowl Spread
Every so often, a majority of bookmakers will ignore a rush of bets on a side of the Super Bowl spread. They’ll stick to the spread as it is without changing the number or the payoff odds to encourage balance on both sides of the betting market.
Why? Because they’re sure that the point spread is accurate, and hope to get a windfall of profit if the favored club wins the NFL title.
An example occurred in the 2018-19 season when sportsbooks stuck to a spread of New England (-2.5) despite Los Angeles-ATS taking all kinds of action from high-roller Super Bowl bettors. The NFC-champion Rams had just beaten Drew Brees and the New Orleans Saints in the Superdome and boasted an intimidating defense. Meanwhile, Tom Brady of the Patriots was expected to show his advanced age against a fast and physical opponent at the Super Bowl in Atlanta.
But bookmakers knew Bill Belichick was still the best head coach in the NFL. The Hoodie cooked-up a blitzing defense that held the Rams to just a field goal, and Brady needed only to steer a couple of successful scoring drives to produce the winning points in an outcome that paid-off for Sin City.
Where to Bet the Spread on the Super Bowl?
Unless you’re from 2 of 32 cities, your hometown team is not playing in Super Bowl LIV in Miami. That’s when placing a small bet can come in handy, not just for the profit opportunity but to produce a rooting interest and enhance your enjoyment of the game.
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