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Jeff Haney

Jeff Haney analyzes the numerous offbeat Super Bowl 'prop' bets

23 January 2008

LAS VEGAS, Nevada -- The biggest betting slips, those indicating wagers of five or six figures, are still issued on one team or the other to cover the point spread on Super Bowl Sunday.

Yet in terms of the sheer number of betting tickets sold, to say nothing of hype and hoopla, proposition wagers reign as the pound-for-pound champion of Super Bowl betting in Las Vegas.

It's easy to understand the appeal of "props" -- the sometimes offbeat betting opportunities on team statistics, individual player performances and other ancillary results of the game apart from the final score and total points scored.

Although setting the odds on certain Super Bowl props is a formulaic, paint-by-numbers exercise year after year, other props allow plenty of leeway for oddsmakers and handicappers to work their own particular alchemy. The best props allow bettors to infuse the betting line with their considered opinion on how Super Bowl Sunday will play out -- and then back it up at the windows.

Two years ago, for instance, Jerome Bettis of the Steelers entered the Super Bowl having scored touchdowns in seven of his past eight games -- although he could scarcely buy a touchdown during the first half of the season. What odds would you make on Bettis scoring a touchdown in the Super Bowl: Is he a favorite because of his recent hot streak, or an underdog based on season-long stats? Perhaps taking into account Bettis' high public profile at the time, Las Vegas Hilton oddsmakers made it minus-140 that Bettis would score a touchdown. (He didn't.)

An analogous situation is unfolding this year with Patriots wide receiver Randy Moss. After he set an NFL record with 23 touchdown receptions in the regular season, opposing defenses clamped down on Moss in the playoffs, allowing him just two receptions and no touchdowns in two games. Will Moss revert to regular-season form, or will the Giants do all they can to shut him down, even if it means leaving the Patriots' other receivers open? Your opinion as a bettor could differ substantially from the oddsmakers' take, while carrying just as much authority. It's not often you can say that in sports betting.

Individual player propositions involving most other New England players should be easier to analyze than those involving the Giants, because the Super Bowl is projected to look a lot like many of New England's games. The Patriots are 12-point favorites in Super Bowl XLII on Feb. 3 and a fairly high-scoring game, 54 points, is expected. It's trickier on the Giants side, because they were favorites or small underdogs in most of their games this season yet they come into the Super Bowl as double-digit underdogs. The disparity makes the Giants' Super Bowl form tougher to predict, especially in projecting players' personal statistical performances.

Of the hundreds of Super Bowl propositions likely to hit the betting boards in Las Vegas in the coming days, here's a look at a handful of possible props, with suggestions on how to analyze them ...

Team to score first: Look at the first-half betting line to get a handle on what's likely to happen early in the game. The first-half total is about 27, with the Patriots favored by 7. This suggests a theoretical first-half score of about 17-10, which equates to a money line of minus-170 (risk $1.70 to win $1) on the Patriots scoring first. Once the "vigorish," or house's cut of the action, is taken into account, the line will probably look something like this: Patriots to score first, minus-180; Giants to score first, plus-160. If you can find the Patriots at minus-160 or better, or the Giants at plus-180 or better, you would likely have a small edge against the house.

Overtime: Odds of minus-900 to minus-1000 that there will be no overtime in the Super Bowl are readily available in Las Vegas each year. In the NFL's past five regular seasons, 75 games, or 5.9 percent of all games, have gone into overtime. Presumably, games with point spreads as large as 12 are less likely to go into overtime than games with more typical single-digit point spreads, but we'll be conservative and stick with the 5.9 percent figure. That equates to a "true," or no-vigorish money line of minus-1595 (risk $15.95 to win $1) that the Super Bowl will not go into overtime. If you lay minus-900 on a prop with a true price of minus-1595, you're making a bet with a 4.6 percent edge against the house.

Safety: This prop is almost identical to the overtime prop, as there have been 77 safeties in the past five regular seasons, or a safety in about 6 percent of games. The usual Las Vegas odds are minus-1100 there will not be a safety in the Super Bowl, and plus-800 there will be a safety. If you play "no safety" at minus-1100, you're making a bet with about a 2.5 percent edge. The phrase "sucker bet" is often misused by people who don't know gambling, but if you play plus-800 on the "yes" side, you are making a sucker bet, trying to overcome a house edge of 46 percent.

Total number of quarterback sacks: Traditionally, over/under 4 1/2 is the Las Vegas price on total sacks in the Super Bowl, although last year 3 1/2 was available at one property with 4 1/2 at another joint. The average number of sacks leaguewide was 4.3 a game this season, although the median number of sacks in New England's games was 3 1/2. Including playoff games, under 4 1/2 would have cashed 12 of 18 times in Patriots games. The median in New York's games was 4 1/2, although 18 of their 53 sacks came in two games the Giants firmly controlled, against the Eagles and the 49ers. I'd make 4 the number for the Super Bowl and look to bet over 3 1/2, under 4 1/2 ... or both, if the opportunity arises for a second consecutive year.

Total number of fumbles lost: The usual over/under is 1 1/2. For the past four Super Bowls oddsmakers have placed a premium on the under, making bettors lay minus-130 or minus-140 on under 1 1/2. In the 2003 Super Bowl between the Raiders and Buccaneers, the over 1 1/2 was minus-200 and the under plus-160. We probably won't see that price again this year. Including playoff games and counting the game they played each other only once, under 1 1/2 would have cashed in 25 of 36 Giants and Patriots games this season, or 69 percent of the time. That equates to a money line of minus-223, so if you think 69 percent is a fair assessment for the Super Bowl, betting under 1 1/2 fumbles lost at minus-140 would give you a nice edge against the house.

Jersey number of the first player to score a touchdown: Making the over/under 43 1/2 would appear to neatly divide the touchdown-scoring proficiency of the Patriots and Giants. Over bettors would have Randy Moss (No. 81) and Wes Welker (No. 83) working for them. Under bettors would have Brandon Jacobs (No. 27) and Plaxico Burress (No. 17). Under bettors could claim a "bad beat" if the first touchdown is scored by Ahmad Bradshaw or Heath Evans, each No. 44.

Total net yards by both teams: Generally in an NFL game with an over/under of 54 points, expect to see an over/under of 730 yards.

Total field goals in the game: Typically in a game with an over/under of 54 points, 10 scores are expected, roughly divided between six touchdowns and four field goals. Because the Patriots (about 78 percent of their scores are touchdowns) and Giants (65 percent) are both touchdown-heavy, however, the over/under will likely be similar to the one in last year's Super Bowl and come in at 3 1/2 field goals.

Will either team score three consecutive times? Be aware that extra points and 2-point conversions don't count, but safeties do. The "yes" side is perennially a solid favorite. In the past five Super Bowls, the "yes" has been minus-175, minus-165, minus-150, minus-170 and minus-180. This year's Super Bowl, however, has a wider point spread (12) and a higher total (54) attached to it than any of those games, so look for a line north of minus-200. For what it's worth, the "yes" would have cashed in 11 of the Patriots' 18 games -- but in only four of their past 10.

Will Tom Brady's first pass be complete or incomplete? A completion is always favored in this prop, although the line varies and is highly dependent on the individual quarterback and his team's offensive system. The highest price on complete in the past five Super Bowls was minus-220 on Rich Gannon in 2003. (Gannon did complete his first pass.) The lowest price on complete in that span was minus-145 on Rex Grossman last year. (He also completed his first pass.) The Patriots have shown a propensity to start off with short, easy passes, and Brady has completed his first pass in 16 of 18 games this season. Even though one of the incomplete passes came in the playoffs on an uncharacteristically long attempt, I would look to bet the "complete" and would certainly lay at least up to the minus-220 that was attached to Gannon.

Will Eli Manning's first pass be complete or incomplete: Manning has completed his first pass in 11 of 19 games this season, or 58 percent, meaning we'll likely see a line of minus-147 on complete and plus-127 on incomplete.

Total completions by Brady: The over/under should come in at 24 completions, the median in Brady's 18 games this season.

Will Brady throw at least one interception? The "yes" side of this prop is usually a favorite; for example, last year it was minus-160 that Peyton Manning would throw an interception. (He did.) But Brady had only eight interceptions in the regular season, and it's crucial not to overreact to the three he had against San Diego in the playoffs. I'd make the line similar to the one on Brady in the 2004 Super Bowl against Carolina: plus-110 on "yes," he will throw an interception, and minus-130 on "no."

Number of touchdown passes by Brady: The Patriots are expected to score four touchdowns in the game, and Brady typically accounts for two-thirds of his team's touchdowns, so 2 1/2 looks like a reasonable number. I'd look to bet over 2, given the opportunity.

Total tackles by Tedy Bruschi: Although Bruschi recorded as many as 12 tackles in a game twice this season on the way to his fifth Super Bowl, the over/under will likely come in at 5, his median number of tackles per game.

Total receptions by Randy Moss: Don't overreact and place too much weight on Moss' performance in two playoff games, in which he has caught just one pass in each. The number will likely revert to his season-long median of about 5 with a premium on the over or 5 1/2 with a premium on the under.

Will Wes Welker score a touchdown? Again, don't overreact to his touchdowns in each of the Patriots' playoff games. Welker's season-long numbers indicate he's at least a slight underdog, probably along the lines of minus-140 on the "no," plus-120 on the "yes."

Which player will score the first touchdown? Bettors typically find little value here, as sports books employ a theoretical hold percentage ranging from 30 percent to as high as 50 percent on this prop. If you insist on taking a flier on someone, at least shop around. Odds vary greatly by casino. Last year, for example, Devin Hester scored the first touchdown. The odds on Hester were 8-1 at Harrah's joints but 30-1 at the Las Vegas Hilton.

Over/under on the time of "The Star-Spangled Banner": Despite what someone in the national media will erroneously state sometime in the next week and half, you cannot legally bet on the length of the national anthem in Las Vegas. By law, wagers in Nevada sports books must relate to the outcome of a sporting event. You might find this prop on an underground line or with an offshore sports book, however. Last year, Billy Joel reportedly went "under" the consensus line of 1 minute, 44 seconds. Typically, the clock starts at "Oh" and ends at the song's conclusion -- including any "yeahs" or other vocal flourishes. As a reference point, this year's singer, Jordin Sparks, of "American Idol" fame, completed a rendition of the anthem in 1:40 at last year's NBA Finals.