The Super Bowl continues to grow, even as NFL ratings decline, with the big game attracting big handles from the world of sports wagering. Point spreads and over/unders offered by sportsbooks like Sports Interaction for the Super Bowl can be divided into three eras based on Joe Montana’s career.
Before Joe lead the 49ers to four Super Bowls, favorites crushed underdogs in low scoring affairs. During Montana’s reign, favorites still performed well against the spread, even as overall scoring exploded. After Joe hung up his cleats and Elway finally won a ring, underdogs started to cover the spread at an accelerated rate while scoring dipped.
Pre-Montana Super Bowl Era
The first 15 Super Bowls were mostly predictable affairs. Sportsbooks appeared to be cautious when determining point spreads for favorites, with underdogs rarely making a splash against the spread. The Pittsburgh Steelers were the most dominant team of the era, earning four Super Bowl rings, beating the spread three times in the process.
Overall, the favorite beat the spread 11 out of 15 times, a whopping 73% winning ratio. Coincidentally, two of the biggest point spread upsets may have triggered caution for bookies determining spreads.
Joe Namath’s guarantee beat an 18-point spread in Super Bowl III, while Super Bowl IV witnessed Kansas City obliterate Minnesota, despite a 12-point spread favoring the Vikings. After these two massive upsets, favorites beat the spread in nine of the proceeding 10 Super Bowls, creating the dominant trend before Montana.
Nine of the first 14 Super Bowl totals were conservative estimates during this era, including seven consecutive under results between Super Bowl III and XI. Only two of those 14 games featured an over/under above 40, evidence of the low-scoring trend over the first decade and a half of the biggest single annual event in sports.
The Joe Montana Super Bowl Era
Joe Montana and the San Francisco 49ers were slim, one-point favorites to beat Cincinnati during Super Bowl XVI in 1982. They held on for a five-point win against the Bengals to collect their first of four rings during the 80’s.
San Francisco’s “west coast” offensive style would have a major impact on the NFL, inflating the final score through a stronger emphasis on passing. Favorites continued to rule between Super Bowl XVI and XXXI, beating the spread in 10 out of 16 games, resulting in a 62.5 ATS winning percentage.
The majority of the 1980s and the 1990s were dominated by quarterbacks like Montana, Steve Young, Troy Aikman, Brett Favre and John Elway. As such, only two over/under totals were below 40 points, including three consecutive projected totals over 50 between 1994 and 1996.
Montana’s example created an increase in scoring for Super Bowl games, with the over winning in 10 of 16 championship games.
Post-Montana Super Bowl Era
Ironic that the end of the “Montana” Super Bowl era would result in John Elway’s first Super Bowl – a milestone which was powered by Terrell Davis and one of the greatest rushing performances in football history. During Super Bowl XXXII, Terrell Davis carried Elway and the Broncos to a stunning upset of Brett Favre and the Green Bay Packers, who were 11-point favorites.
Since then, underdogs have performed well against the spread. Including Elway’s miraculous win, 12 of the past 20 Super Bowl spreads were covered by underdogs, with two championship games a push or pick’em. Between 2002 and 2017, 11 out of 16 underdogs beat the spread, resulting in an incredible 68.8% record for ATS dogs.
The post-Montana era still features plenty of scoring, with 11 of 20 Super Bowls finishing above the expected total. However, the NFL no longer features the ridiculous run’n’gun scoring of the 80s and 90s, when defenses were still struggling to catch up to offensive innovation.
Perhaps the most telling trend would be recent MVPs for the big game. Tom Brady’s won two of the past four Super Bowl MVPs, with linebackers Malcolm Smith and Von Miller snagging the award in 2014 and 2016. Defense appears to be the greatest predictor of the modern Super Bowl, which might eventually be known as the “Brady Era”.