Mike McCarn / AP
Sunday, Jan. 31, 2016 | 2 a.m.
Against the Spread
Panthers this year: 13-5-1
Broncos this year: 9-8-1
For the next week, sports books will take their turn as the focal point of casino floors across the Las Vegas Valley.
Next Sunday’s Super Bowl 50 in Santa Clara, Calif., is expected to be the third consecutive Super Bowl to attract more than $100 million in sports bets throughout Nevada.
Want in on the action? We’ve compiled a list to consider before betting on the game, in which bookmakers installed the Carolina Panthers as 6-point favorites over the Denver Broncos.
At the beginning of the season, oddsmakers gave no less than 22 teams a better probability than Carolina to win the title. A rash of preseason injuries, most notably losing top receiver Kelvin Benjamin for the year due to a torn ACL, dragged down the Panthers’ odds. They could become the longest shot to win the Super Bowl since the 2001-02 New England Patriots, which also were 60-to-1.
Denver was the fifth choice in the futures odds right before the NFL season kicked off, behind Seattle, New England, Green Bay and Indianapolis. The Broncos stayed at the same odds throughout the offseason, which was a surprise given past betting patterns. Bettors used to load up annually on teams led by quarterback Peyton Manning, but shied away before the 2015-16 season.
The comfort of backing a team that has performed the best in the NFL all season sounds appealing. It may have been debatable whether Carolina belonged at the top going into the playoffs. It’s not anymore.
The Panthers’ 49-15 blowout of the Arizona Cardinals in the NFC Championship Game built their average margin of victory to 13 points per game, higher than any other team. The Broncos beat their opponents by only 4 points per game.
Carolina is without weakness, one of only two teams ranked in the league’s top five in both offense and defense by Football Outsiders’ advanced metrics. And the Panthers beat the other team, the Seattle Seahawks, twice this season, including in the divisional playoff round.
Denver’s offense might be as much of a weakness as its defense is a strength. The Broncos average 5.2 yards per play to rank 24th in the NFL. In the past 15 years, the 2008 Steelers are the only team with a standing that low to win the Super Bowl.
Calling quarterback Peyton Manning a shell of his former self would be stating it lightly. The legendary future Hall of Famer ranked last in passer rating among qualified quarterbacks in the regular season after throwing for nine touchdowns and 17 interceptions. Although Manning has no turnovers in two playoff wins, he’s averaged just 5.7 yards per pass attempt.
Carolina’s Cam Newton has tallied 9.9 yards per attempt in the postseason. At the game’s most important position, the Panthers have a major advantage.
Carolina may score 32 points per game, but Denver has given up that many points only once this season. The Broncos’ defense has played at a transcendent level and will be the most dominant unit on the field.
Denver gives up an NFL-low 4.5 yards per play to opponents. No team has posted a lower total since the 2008 Pittsburgh Steelers, who defeated the Cardinals in Super Bowl 43. The Broncos have the top defense both against the run, surrendering 3.3 yards per carry, and the pass, giving up 5.7 yards per attempt, so there’s no clear way to attack them.
They’ve also burned gamblers betting against them as underdogs this season. The Broncos are 5-0 against the spread and 4-1 straight-up when taking points.
Buying low on teams is a hallmark of successful sports betting. Taking the Panthers in the Super Bowl is the polar opposite of that strategy. The Super Bowl spread swelled three points in some places, from minus-3 to minus-6, in Carolina’s direction based solely on its dismantling of Arizona.
It’s important not to overreact to one performance. The Panthers laid more than 4 points in sports books on eight occasions this season, going an underwhelming 3-5 against the spread in those games.
The single team among that group with a winning record was the Washington Redskins, which the Panthers smashed 44-16. But even the most committed Denver detractor would admit it’s a big step up from Washington.
The past three Super Bowls, and four of the past five, have soared over sports books’ point totals. That will end this season; it’s time for a defensive struggle in the biggest game of the year. Look for the total score to fall below 46 points. That means scoring will be at a premium, and every point becomes valuable. The betting market undervalues great defense, which will be what keeps Denver in the game. Take Denver +6.