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2-Minute Drill: Super Bowl LI Picks

Pigskin, prop bets, and the pursuit of a profit: Super Sunday wagers from a wannabe wiseguy

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"Just Say No."

While the phrase rose to fame as First Lady Nancy Reagan's battle cry in the war on drugs, these days it's as fitting a mantra as any for betting on the Super Bowl.

As the countdown to kickoff in Houston dwindles, football fans are flocking to Vegas in full force to place their biggest bets of the year on the Falcons +3 or, more often than not, on the Patriots -3. They're also risking a little to win a lot by taking the "Yes" on longshot props offering payouts that seem irresistible, but in reality fall far short of accounting for their true probability. Why else would a sportsbook offer a 7-to-1 return on a wager that the game goes to overtime, when only about one in 16 NFL games is tied after 60 minutes? More on that later....

Plenty of fans deploying the prevalent recreational betting approach outlined above will win on occasion, but odds are the vast majority will lose over time. In the long run, the best way to bet on the Super Bowl isn't to over-invest in the sharpest point spread of the year, where any edges are razor thin. Nor is it to search for the needle in a haystack that is the sports bettor's dream of a big, quick and easy payday.

Instead, thanks to an extensive prop menu unmatched by any other sporting event, the optimal way to come out ahead on Super Sunday is to exercise some serious intestinal fortitude and pick the spots to lay a lot to win a little, taking advantage of select lines most likely to churn a slight profit over time. In other words, it often means having the courage to "just say no" - and then put your money where your mouth is.

No Safety (-1000)

"-1000" signifies 10-to-1 odds, so in order to win $10 on a wager that there won't be a safety, you'd have to lay $100. Not an easy risk to stomach, is it?

But only about 1 in 32 NFL games features a safety, conveying a pure mathematical edge in betting against one occurring.

In addition to the math, the New England-Atlanta matchup favors the "No." There won't be a great defense on the field, and there will be two elite offenses that tend not to beat themselves.

Of course, the "Yes" is much more popular because of the concept of risking a little to win a lot, not to mention a stunning recent streak in which the "Yes" bettors cashed three years in a row from Super Bowls XLVI-XLVIII. But between the sheer math involved and the particulars of this matchup, we're highly unlikely to see this on Sunday:

No Overtime (-1200)

As with the safety prop, taking the "No" on the game going to overtime means betting a lot to win a little. At 12-to-1, the risk appears to be even more extreme in this case. But also just like the safety prop, in the long run the math on the "No" compensates for any lack of sex appeal.

On average, playing this prop 16 times will produce a 15-1 record. The one loss really stings, but at the going rate of -1200, the wins cover the losses and then some.

Additionally, through 50 Super Bowls we've yet to witness overtime. There have been plenty of close calls and the run of games being decided in regulation won't last forever. But as far as saying "no" on this prop is concerned, the verdict on the value is in. It's good.


No Touchback on Stephen Gostkowski's First Kickoff (+170)

Once again, on the basis of basic math there's an edge on the "No." And this time, the return exceeds the upfront risk.

Gostkowski produced a 57% touchback rate on kickoffs this season. So if we could play this 100 times at $10 each, we'd expect 57 touchbacks and thus 57 losses totaling $570. But at +170, the 43 wins would bring $731, for a net profit of $161. That's an ROI of more than 16 percent.

Math aside, Bill Belichick's uncanny capacity for common sense as a head coach brings value. Fully aware that a high kickoff forced to be fielded inside the 5-yard line is the optimal way to pin the opposition deep in its own territory, Belichick is one of precious few coaches smart enough to spit on the idea of booting the ball through the end zone.

Falcons +3

As mentioned in the lead, the Super Bowl is no place for the biggest bet of the season against the point spread. But there's reason to like the Falcons to at least keep it close in another wager that says "no," this one in the sense of denying arguably the greatest QB/head coach tandem of all time.

One of the most common arguments in favor of the Patriots is their experience on the biggest stage in sports, this marking their seventh trip to the Super Bowl in the Brady/Belichick era. But through the first six they've been thoroughly outperformed on a yards-per-play basis, and since getting the first title under their belts have fallen far short of the expectations implied by the point spread. Simply put, each of New England's previous six Super Bowl appearances could've gone either way, without one performance by the Patriots qualifying as dominant.

And Atlanta isn't as short on experience as many may think. This is Dan Quinn's third Super Bowl in four years after previously serving as the Seahawks' defensive coordinator, and it's his second time in three years getting two weeks to game plan for New England in the Super Bowl, this time without Rob Gronkowski in the fold.

Experience could be an issue for the Falcons' young defense, which will inevitably get exploited by Tom Brady at times. But the unit has also improved enough over the course of the season that any cumulative stats including early-season growing pains can be discounted in order to better reflect the current level of play.

The Patriots' defense, meanwhile, is famous for taking away what the opposing offense does best. The predicament in this case is that Atlanta does so many things so well - taking away one key component won't necessarily enable New England to shut the Falcons down. Julio Jones is a likely focal point for the Patriots, but devoting the energy and effort to contain him only opens things up more for Atlanta's other receivers and its two-headed monster out of the backfield in Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman.

It's never a surprise to see Brady and Belichick win a game. But the Falcons may be getting overlooked here - it also wouldn't be a surprise to see them rise up and emerge victorious, giving Quinn the greatest Gatorade bath of his life.


Pick of the Week: No Defensive or Special Teams Touchdown (-190)

Defensive or special teams touchdowns primarily occur three ways: turnovers, punt returns, and kickoff returns.

With Brady and Matt Ryan under center, turnovers will most likely be kept to a minimum. And with both offenses primed to move the ball up and down the field, punts (and therefore punt returns) should also be kept to a minimum.

A lot of scoring means a lot of kickoffs, so kickoff returns appear to present the biggest risk of the three factors. But even with Gostkowski and the Patriots deploying an optimal field position strategy forcing several returns from Atlanta, it's probable that kickoffs will result in touchbacks more often than not. And when we do see kickoff returns they're unlikely to get taken to the house, courtesy of above-average special teams units on both teams providing stout coverage.

There should be plenty of scoring in Houston, making for a compelling contest with no shortage of entertainment value, but any touchdown celebrations will likely be reserved exclusively for those who play offense.