Harvard sports analytics team tackles best Super Bowl 50 prop bets

As the Super Bowl approaches, it’s everyone’s final opportunity to gamble on NFL games. For this reason, we see such a large increase in betting for this upcoming weekend – not only in the amount of money wagered but also on the number of ways you can bet your money.

Super Bowl week is the king of prop bets, ranging from mild to crazy. While we may not be able to quantify the odds on many of those off-the-wall wagers, there are some bets for which a statistical analysis may be useful.

When trying to determine what the odds of something happening in the Super Bowl are, there are two main sources of data that we can turn to: team specific data and Super Bowl data. For example, if we are trying to measure the probability of Carolina’s offense achieving feat X, we can look at:

1. How often Carolina’s offense achieved this feat X during their games this year

2. How often Denver’s defense allowed the opposing offense to achieve feat X during their games this year

3. How often teams in the Super Bowl achieve feat X

All three are valid ways of trying to quantify it. The team specific data is relevant because it is these teams that are playing in the Super Bowl, but data from past Super Bowls (we looked at the past 20) may also provide some insight if there are trends that appear in the Super Bowl but not in regular season games.

For this reason, for each prop bet we have calculated the percent of the time that each team has achieved (or allowed the other team to achieve) the specific feat during their 16 regular season and two postseason games, as well as the percent of times it has happened in the past 20 years.

We have also included the average of those three numbers in a separate column. Finally, using the sportsbooks’ numbers, we have calculated the line implied odds. Note these lines do NOT add to 100 percent, but rather higher – this is because of the vig that is needed to make money.

Now, without further ado, onto the prop bets! All bets are courtesy of the Westgate Las Vegas Superbook.

FIRST TOUCHDOWN OF THE GAME WILL BE:

PASSING TD: -165
ANY OTHER TD: +145




 

Carolina

 

Denver

Past Super
Bowls

Average

Line-Implied
Odds

Passing TD

33%

 

44%

60%

46%

62%

Any Other
TD

67%

 

56%

40%

54%

41%


The books seem to think that it is very likely that a passing touchdown will be the first touchdown of the game, but history says it is pretty evenly split. In particular, Carolina has a dominant run game, both at the running back position and at quarterback. And with Manning not having the best season (yes, we’re Patriots fans, why do you ask?), it seems that it may be more likely than not that the first touchdown comes on the ground.

FIRST SCORE OF THE GAME WILL BE:

TOUCHDOWN: -150
ANY OTHER SCORE: +130




 

Carolina

Denver

Past Super
Bowls

Average

Line-Implied
Odds

Touchdown

50%

33%

45%

43%

60%

Any Other
Score

50%

67%

55%

57%

43%


A similar prop bet, but we still see a similar trend: the lines are overvaluing the likelihood of touchdowns relative to other scores. Why might this be? Perhaps people have an inherent bias towards the more memorable events like touchdowns – more specifically, passing touchdowns – and are prone to overvaluing their likelihood. And again, considering Peyton’s weak arm (bitterness alert!) banking on a Denver field goal might not be such a bad idea.

PEYTON MANNING (DEN) FIRST PASS WILL BE:

COMPLETE: -165
INCOMPLETE: +145




 

Carolina

Denver

Past Super
Bowls

Average

Line-Implied
Odds

Complete

44%

82%

68%

65%

62%

Incomplete

56%

18%

32%

35%

41%

Despite all of the negative things said about Peyton this season, he’s actually completed a large percentage of his first passes (9 for 11). Also, in most of the last 20 Super Bowls quarterbacks have traditionally completed their first pass – both stats which go directly against Carolina’s record of allowing the opposing team to complete their first pass less than half of the time. Which stat will give way? Tough to tell, but the odds are pretty spot on for this prop bet, interestingly enough.

DISTANCE OF FIRST CAM NEWTON (CAR) TOUCHDOWN PASS:

OVER 13.5: -110
UNDER 13.5: -110




 

Carolina

Denver

Past Super
Bowls

Average

Line-Implied
Odds

Over

44%

25%

42%

37%

52%

Under

56%

75%

58%

63%

52%


Not only does Cam Newton not throw his first touchdown pass of the game for more than 13 yards, but Denver’s defense rarely gives up large passing touchdowns. Even past Super Bowl games agree that it’s unlikely for the first touchdown pass to be longer than 13.5 yards. This is the only prop bet we looked at where all three of our datasets agree that one side may be a good investment.

LONGEST TD OF GAME:

OVER 43.5: -110
UNDER 43.5: -110




 

Carolina

Denver

Past Super
Bowls

Average

Line-Implied
Odds

Over

50%

67%

65%

61%

52%

Under

50%

33%

35%

39%

52%


Although 43.5 yards seems like a long distance and your intuition may be telling you to grab the Under here, there have actually been a fair amount of longer touchdowns in Denver and past Super Bowl games, while Carolina is pretty evenly split. This was one of the more surprising stats that we found.

WILL THE TEAM THAT SCORES FIRST WIN THE GAME?:

YES: -180
NO: +160




 

Carolina

Denver

Past Super
Bowls

Average

Line-Implied
Odds

Yes

67%

78%

60%

68%

64%

No

33%

22%

40%

32%

38%


There isn’t a huge arbitrage scenario here, although all of the stats seem to agree that the probability that the team to score first will win the game is as big, if not bigger than the line-implied odds. This really does highlight the importance of scoring first, although, it’s important to clarify that there is just correlation not necessarily causation. The team that scores first will often be the better team, so it may be a signaling method.

WHO WILL HAVE MORE?:

STEPHEN CURRY (GS) POINTS – 4.5: -110
PANTHERS POINTS + 4.5: -110

A final, more fun prop. Will Stephen Curry’s point total against the Thunder on February 6 be more than 4.5 points higher than the Panther’s point total in the Super Bowl?

To illustrate, we gathered data on Carolina’s points for, Denver’s points against, the points scored by all teams in the Super Bowl in the past 20 years, and Steph Curry’s point totals (from which we subtracted 4.5). We then plotted the density curve estimate for all of these dataset, and got the below graph.

As you can see, Carolina generally tends to score more points per game than Curry (-4.5) does. However, Denver has a stingy defense and gives up less points, and the scores of other Super Bowls are pretty similar to Curry’s point output.

Finally, using the data, we can resample from these datasets and see what percent of the time betting on Curry would win versus betting on Carolina. For example, if we assume the Panthers’ actually distribution of points for the Super Bowl is most similar to their distribution of points for the regular season, betting on Curry would win 27 percent of the time.

If we think it will be most similar to the distribution of points allowed by Denver, betting on Curry is good 69.6 percent of the time. And, last of all, assuming the distribution of past Super Bowl scores, a bet on Curry would win 54 percent of the time.

Hopefully this helps you pick a few good prop bets, and go Panthers!



Harrison Chase is the Co-President of the Harvard Sports Analysis Collective, a student-run organization at Harvard College dedicated to the quantitative analysis of sports strategy and management.

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