Charles Barkley—the basketball Hall of Famer/hack golfer/frequent Vegas visitor who would bet four figures on an ant race if given the chance—was recently on Dan Patrick’s radio show lamenting how he’d lost every NFL playoff wager he’s placed this year (and would’ve lost the ones he didn’t place). That led to this exchange:
Patrick: Don’t bet the Super Bowl.
Barkley: [Brief pause.] What do you think the Super Bowl’s FOR? That’s all the Super Bowl’s for! There’s a reason it’s the biggest party of the year, every year.
The Round Mound of Rebound certainly isn’t alone in his opinion. Much to the (public) consternation of NFL commissioner/head hypocrite Roger Goodell, pro football’s popularity is inexorably linked to gambling—and that marriage is magnified when the Super Bowl rolls around. This year’s Ravens-49ers matchup is expected to generate roughly $90 million in wagers—and that’s just in this state. Throw in illegal and offshore betting, and that number increases tenfold (and, yes, that $5-a-square pool your grandma oversees qualifies as illegal betting).
This year’s Super Bowl wagering menu is thicker than the phony nostalgia surrounding Ray Lewis’ retirement. For instance, want to bet on the combined total sacks for the Ravens and 49ers? Or the length of the longest field goal? Or which team will use a coach’s challenge first? You can do that, and much more, thanks to dozens of proposition offerings all over town. About the only thing you can’t bet on is whether the opening coin toss will land heads or tails—oops, my bad, Jay Kornegay over at the LVH will take your action on that, too.
Indeed, the Super Bowl in the 21st century is a degenerate gambler’s dream. And therein lies the danger: Many bettors—experienced and novice alike—treat the final game of the NFL season as though it were the final sporting event on earth, firing all the bullets in their bankroll on the one contest that’s the toughest of the year to win. (Think about it: In September, bookmakers have to set lines for 50-plus college football and 16 NFL games; come the end of January, those bookmakers have but one game on which to focus.)
I learned this money-management lesson the hard way three years ago, when—in an attempt to make a splashy debut—I invested 20 percent of my initial $7,000 bankroll on Super Bowl XLIV, backing the Colts as a 5½-point favorite against the Saints and also playing the game “over” the total. I went 0-for-2, and I’ve been swimming upstream ever since.
Using a much more disciplined approach (and some Lance Armstrong-strength PEDs), I rebounded with back-to-back winning Super Bowls, including hitting my three biggest plays in the Giants-Patriots game a year ago. Also, from the what-have-you-done-for-me-lately department, I went 4-1-1 in the first two rounds of these NFL playoffs, and followed that with a 6-3 effort in college basketball last week.
To recap: That’s two straight profitable Super Bowls, a near-perfect NFL postseason this year and an ongoing three-week winning streak. OK, so now that I’ve successfully jinxed myself, let’s move on to my Super Bowl XLVII selections …
$220 on Ravens +4 vs. 49ers
$40 on Ravens money-line (+150) vs. 49ers
$77 on Ravens-49ers UNDER 47½
Let’s start with the point spread. As of press time, the consensus around town was San Francisco -3½ (down from an opening number of 4½). However, if you like Baltimore (as I do), it’s not difficult to find a shop offering plus-4. Regardless of which way you go, you’d have to be more clueless than Chris Brown’s next girlfriend not to get the best of this number. After all, not only is it tough to beat the oddsmakers in this game (as previously mentioned), but six of the past 11 Super Bowls were decided by three or four points. So I’m grabbing the full four points with Baltimore—and it’s not just because I’d fear for my life if I picked against Ray Lewis. Or because I despise all things San Francisco. It’s because of pure value, as this should be a pick-em game.
Take away a completely meaningless 23-17 loss at Cincinnati in the regular-season finale—so meaningless that Baltimore’s key starters barely played—and here’s what the Ravens have done in their last four games: a 33-14 beat-down of the Giants (the same Giants who won 26-3 in San Francisco in October), a 24-9 rout of the Colts in a wild-card game and consecutive road wins over the AFC’s top two seeds, Denver (38-35 in overtime) and New England (28-13).
Throughout Baltimore’s impressive run, QB Joe Flacco has received the bulk of the credit, and deservedly so (he threw 10 TD passes and no interceptions in those four wins). But unsung and underrated has been the Ravens defense (ironic, given Baltimore’s reputation as a dominant defensive team for more than a decade). Check the results: The Ravens limited Eli Manning and the Giants to two touchdowns (the last of which came with the score 30-7); they held Andrew Luck out of the end zone (the Colts managed just three field goals); they gave up three touchdowns in five quarters to Peyton Manning, but only one after halftime (if not for two special-teams TDs, the Broncos would’ve gotten blown out); and they limited Tom Brady to one touchdown and two field goals (and a grand total of zero second-half points).
By comparison, the 49ers defense—which some would have you believe is the second coming of the ’86 Bears—has allowed 34, 42, 31 and 24 points in four of the last five games. The only team San Francisco has slowed since early December? The Cardinals, who ranked dead last in the NFL in total offense this season and (in a 27-13 loss to the Niners) started a quarterback (Brian Hoyer) who was cut by two teams in 2012 and had been on Arizona’s roster for two weeks.
Back to the Ravens. A quick review of their season shows they’ve been beaten handily just twice (again, I’m throwing out the six-point Week 17 defeat in Cincinnati): They lost 43-13 at Houston (a week after losing Lewis to what was then thought to be a season-ending injury) and 34-17 to Denver (a flat spot after consecutive last-second, three-point defeats). In all, Baltimore has dropped five games that mattered, three by a total of seven points.
Yes, I know the 49ers are 5-0 in Super Bowls (4-1 against the spread). I know the NFC has won four of the last five Super Bowls (covering in all five). And I know Colin Kaepernick is the NFL’s new messiah. But here’s what else I know: The Ravens won their only Super Bowl (34-7 over the Giants in 2001); the underdog is 4-1 ATS in the last five Super Bowls (with three outright wins); and in the past six weeks, Baltimore has taken down three future Hall-of-Fame quarterbacks (both Manning brothers and Brady) who own six championship rings, and a fourth (Luck) who set multiple records in his rookie season.
Call me crazy, but given those results and two weeks to prepare, I think the veteran Ravens defense can figure out how to contain a quarterback making his 10th career NFL start. Final score: Ravens 24, 49ers 17.