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Best of Bob Owens

SUPER BOWL XXXV -- And the Winner Is . . .

22 January 2001

Roman numeral time again. Giants vs Ravens, and these are not the two teams the ratings-worshipping NFL executives would have preferred: a pair of clubs with no-name quarterbacks, low-scoring outfits defined by their defenses.

Surely the NFL nabobs would rather have in their showcase event the zippy Minnesota Vikings, who also have a nice quarterback storyline. The AFC championship game must have also depressed the league office. Oakland has a good offense, but the team is owned by maverick Al Davis, who has successfully sued the NFL more than once to get what he wanted from them.

But Baltimore, the winner of that game, is probably even worse in the eyes of league brass. Their defense is perhaps the most dominating to come along in years. (Quoth the Raven, "No Points More.") The NFL understands that high-scoring teams and games draw the unsophisticated fans, and the Super Bowl is mostly watched by those who know not a chop block from a shotgun. The NFL's dream team was last year's high-octane St Louis Rams, who also featured more heart-warming storylines than you could shake a Neilson at.

In this edition of the big game the primary storyline will be the Raven's star linebacker, Ray Lewis, who last year plea-bargained his way out of a pending murder charge. Count on reading or watching a few zillion media pieces on that topic.

Baltimore is also coached by super sharp and smart Brian Billick. Last season he stripped bare the pro league when he revealed that they were planning to use corrupt on-field officiating to deprive his team of a victory, so as to produce a ratings-positive outcome.

To have a coach in their annual extravaganza who accused them of fraud probably does not warm their hearts. (Billick stated that the league wanted Cleveland to beat his team. Baltimore was once the old Cleveland Browns until owner Art Modell left the city for greener pastures. This act set off a media hatefest directed both at Modell and at the NFL for permitting such perfidy.)

Aside from all that we still have The Game. It's often a bit anticlimactic for both players and aware fans - the fun really is in getting there. But a sizable number of Americans bet on the outcome of only two sporting events each year, March Madness and the Super Bowl. Most of the wagers are made through office pools, but these are also hot times for the bookmakers. The several weeks of March Madness draw more money, but the Super Bowl is the single most wagered-on event in the world.

It's also one of the very few sports contest on which women in any number will bet. While the ladies are fairly well-represented in the ranks of horse race bettors, wagering on sporting events is just about the last almost all-male preserve. For some reason, the pursuit of a pointspread winner is pretty much a yawner to the female psyche.

Manna for the Touts

The game is also heaven-sent manna to the vainglorious touts (an oxymoron), who will hound their dupes with bogus promises of absolute knowledge, inside dope. And the dupes will respond joyfully, lightening up their wallets.

They will not heed what Brian Billick said - somewhat ungrammatically but on the mark -in a press conference following his victory over Oakland: "Trying to figure out what will happen based on what went before is a dangerous proposition for those that want to do so."

All too true, Brian, but we sports bettors live dangerously. So, I'm picking your team to cover the spot against the Giants come January 28th.

Maybe I'm a little biased in favor of Baltimore because in my article on this site last month about public-relations officiating in the NFL (and vis-a-vis Tampa Bay head coach Tony Dungy who meekly accepted a deliberate bad call that cost him a shot at the Super Bowl) I wrote: "The Ravens, with their outspoken leader, are more likely to bust into the Super Bowl before the Bucs and their wimpy coach." It's vainglorious to quote oneself, but frankly I had no idea when I wrote that line that the Ravens would get in this year.

The number for the Super Bowl side opened at Baltimore -1. The sharps let no grass grow under their feet as they pounded the Ravens early, and the line quickly moved to -3, where it sits as I write. I believe the wiseguys were right in jumping on Baltimore.

Cliches often reflect enduring truths, and that is so of the one that states that defenses win championships. The way the game is structured means that will always likely be so, and while the Rams last season seem like an anomaly (and in a sense they were) it's also true that they were a top ten defense in '99, which they certainly were not this season.

The profile of a Super Bowl winner shows that they must either have a bone-crunching defense, or a Hall of Fame quality quarterback. Or both. In the decade of the '90s the winning SB quarterbacks have included Joe Montana, Troy Aikman, Steve Young and John Elway. Last year's winner, Kurt Warner, may not be in this league yet, but probably soon will be. When Washington had an average QB in Mark Rypien, they also sported that bonecrush defense, which helped them win The Game.

The Ravens are #1 in total defense, # 1 in run defense, and # 4 in pass defense. (I use the ratings through 15 games only, as the final contest of the season sometimes produces distorted numbers.) Them's good numbers. Great numbers. Super numbers.

The Giants are, respectively, # 4, #2, and # 16. Not too shabby either, but there is that weakness in the pass D, though the Vikings could not take advantage of it in the championship game.

Both Quarterbacks are Retreads

The quarterbacks for both teams are retreads, reclamation projects who do just enough to win, or more precisely, not to lose. Baltimore is # 22 in pass offense, but a solid # 4 in rushing, New York 10 and 17 in the same categories. Rush defense is crucial in these big games. I expect, therefore, the Giants to come out passing. Good luck to them there.

This Super Bowl duo faced 7 common opponents during the season and postseason. (Some they played twice, and Baltimore met Tennessee three times, including a playoff game. This fact accounts for the uneven numbers.) The Giants went 8-2 straight up (SU) versus the common foes, the Ravens 10-2. New York played five of these games on the road, five at home; Baltimore had five at home and seven away.

Both teams, oddly, lost to the same two opponents, Tennessee and Washington, although the Ravens did beat the Titans two times out of three.

The Giants beat the common opponents by an average score of 20-14, the Ravens by an average of 21-10. New York was 5-5 against the spread (ATS), Baltimore 8-3-1.

In a game that's likely to be a defensive show, field position and turnovers may well decide it. The special teams will therefore play a big part. The New York punter may have a somewhat stronger leg than his Raven counterpart, but not by that much.

However, the Baltimore kicker, Matt Stover, is Numero Uno in the NFL, converting 90 percent of his field goal tries, while Brad Daluiso of the Giants hits 74 percent. And the Raven's punt returner, Jermaine Lewis, is much more productive than anyone on the Giants side.

The football is oddly-shaped and luck plays a part, so it's difficult to predict how that ball will bounce and who will have the most turnovers. The team that does capitalize the most on the other's errors will probably win the game. Baltimore is tops in the league in turnover margin, +23. The Giants rank 9th, +9.

But New York now has an offense, the Giants supporters may claim, basing that on their 41-0 shellacking of Minnesota. I don't think so. Minnesota was out of it before that championship game started, having lost 5 of their last 9 regular season games, and getting to New York by virtue of beating a battered and bruised New Orleans squad.

The big score for the Giants in that game reinforces my intention to bet against them. As in the regular season, teams that score a lot more than they usually do more often than not revert to form - and then some - the very next game. And the Giants averaged just over 20 points a game on offense in the regular season.

Baltimore is No "Lock"

This is not to say that Baltimore is a "lock" to win and cover. Locks exist only in the deluded minds of the victims of the touting fraternity. First, Raven quarterback Dilfer has on occasion suffered his own kind of lock - brainlock. He then turns into a zombie.

This happened in a late season game at Arizona (which Baltimore won but did not come close to covering), where he afterward joked that he had been taken over by body-snatching extraterrestrials. If those aliens should descend upon Tampa on January 28th, the Giants will feed them some raven stew.

And while I'm not big on "trends" as handicapping aids, there is one that does give some pause to Ravens backers: teams that have never been to the Super Bowl - like Baltimore/Cleveland - do not do well in their first appearance versus a team that's been there before.

Since 1980 seven teams have been in that position, and six have lost both SU and ATS. Ironically, the team that beat that trend was the '86 Giants, who clobbered Denver 39-20 in their maiden journey to The Game.

Likewise, teams that have not experienced The Game are often distracted by the intense media spotlight. As John Elway has said, it can be very brutal, tough to handle for teams not accustomed to it. The circus that will this year surround Ray Lewis will make it even tougher than usual.

Against this is the fact that the Giants have not been to The Game themselves in ten years, and they have a whole new cast of characters from that time. A coach is critical in keeping his team focused in the days leading up to the game, and Brian Billick is the best young coach in the league.

He knows what is coming, and has spoken of the various "storylines" the media will pursue, which will be "twisted and turned." I'd guess that Billick will do everything right and have his team ready to play at game time.

My Prediction: Baltimore 19, New York 10

Final score: Baltimore 19, New York 10. This means that I'd expect the game to come in under the low total of 33.5. But most of my betting money will be on the side, on Baltimore to cover.

Many fans love to bet the scores of propositions that come with this event. Some of the sillier ones - like who will win the coin toss - are already up. Others that will be posted closer to game time are playable, like which team's leading rusher will gain more yards.

I think that will be Baltimore, because I think they'll win the game, and the game winner usually has the most rushing yards. I may put a few fun dollars on that one, but for the most part I'll leave the props to the thrill seekers and the parlay players.

Bob Owens is a freelance writer based in San Diego. He has covered sports and betting for more than 20 years.

Bob Owens
Bob Owens has been a freelance writer for 20 years, authoring numerous articles on sports and betting. In the late 1980s, he was an advisor on betting and promotions for the Caliente bookmakers in Mexico. He's based in San Diego.
Bob Owens
Bob Owens has been a freelance writer for 20 years, authoring numerous articles on sports and betting. In the late 1980s, he was an advisor on betting and promotions for the Caliente bookmakers in Mexico. He's based in San Diego.