This post is a case study in picking Superbowl winners.
Calling the Super Bowl enormously popular is doing it a disservice. Broadcast in 180+ countries, the elaborate halftime shows and high-stakes sports on the field are spiked with billion-dollar commercials that can make or break a global brand. About 100 million people tune in to watch, making it by far the most-viewed single sporting event in the world.
Picking Superbowl winners is about more than making a successful futures bet or prop pick. Trying to handicap the league champion in the months leading up to play is a good way to get familiar with the teams, divisions, and contexts you’re about to wager on.
I wanted to write a post explaining the stats and trends that help identify league championship winners in the NFL and along the way give some tips for sports bettors working to figure out their betting strategy for the coming season.
Past Super Bowl Winners
When looking ahead to the next NFL champion, you’ve got 100 seasons of NFL play and 54 past Super Bowls to look back on.
The teams with the most Super Bowl wins are the Pittsburgh Steelers and the New England Patriots, each with six titles to their name. Two more teams have five wins to their credit – the Dallas Cowboys and the San Francisco 49ers. The Giants and Packers each have 4 Super Bowl titles, and Washington and Denver have 3 each. Three teams, Oakland, Miami, and Baltimore, have all won two Super Bowl titles. Eleven NFL teams have claimed one apiece. A dozen teams have never won.
Those trends are all but meaningless in the modern league. The Steelers haven’t won a Super Bowl since 2009, the Cowboys haven’t even threatened the Lombardi trophy since 1996, and the 49ers last celebrated in 1995. Aside from the Patriots, the big names of the old guard are asleep, while new trends and new traditions are formed.
We haven’t had a repeat Super Bowl winner since 2004-2005, in the thick of the Patriots’ multi-season dynasty.
Other Betting Trends
Some other interesting betting trends to consider – the AFC has won (and covered) in five of the last six Super Bowls. The trend of favored teams performing well has a long history in the Super Bowl – the favorite is 35-19 straight up since the first game in 1967.
A note here on wildcard trends. When the NFL expanded to 32 teams in 2002, the conferences were balanced, with four divisions each. This cut the number of wildcard teams from six to four. The most immediate result was a reduction in the performance of these wildcard teams since now they had to play at least three straight playoff road games. That’s a tough hill to climb in a league where home-field advantage means so much.
What Differentiates Super Bowl Winners from the Field?
Looking at publicly-available stats and figures from NFL.com and Pro Football Reference, I’ve been able to identify six factors that correlate heavily with Super Bowl success. The teams that do these seven things put themselves in the best position to win it all in February.
Here are the six factors I’ve identified:
High regular-season win count
This seems like common sense, but there’s another trend hiding here. In most cases, the only teams capable of making a run to the Super Bowl with a relatively low win count are wildcard teams. Divisional winners tend to have the best regular-season win counts by having won their divisions. Think of the 2019 postseason, where the difference between the team with the best record (the 14-2 Ravens) and the team with the worst record (the 9-7 Titans) was significant. If teams that win the Super Bowl tend to have high win-loss records, it’s an indication that wildcard teams don’t fare that well.
Positive record ATS
Since 1967, just five teams have made it to the Super Bowl with a losing record ATS. Only one Super Bowl champion (the 2012 Baltimore Ravens) went into the playoffs having lost ATS more than it covered.
High rushing attempts per game
This surprised me – going back through 54 years of Super Bowls, the winning team each season tended to run 3 more rushing plays per game than the field – 3.14 to be precise. We think of the modern NFL as a passing league – that’s true, to some extent, especially when you compare modern Super Bowl action to those early smashmouth football contests. I think this speaks to the power to be found in adopting a solid ground game to bolster the yards through the air. Almost everybody has a good QB – how many have a good rushing corps besides?
Low turnovers relative to the field
Again, a common-sense statistic that might hold a kernel of brilliance within it. Teams that turn the ball over less often have a better chance of winning the Super Bowl. But I think it’s important to recognize avoiding turnovers as an offensive tactic. Points and yards get a lot of attention when you are analyzing an offense, but too many bettors overlook the tendency of an offense to give up the ball in a sloppy way.
A high number of sacks
There’s a decades-long debate in football fandom about whether it’s better to have a strong defense or a strong offense. I’ve found that teams with high numbers of sacks relative to the field tend to find themselves champions in February. What’s interesting here is that a sack is a double-headed statistic. Each sack represents a major success on the part of team defense, but also a weakness on the part of their opponent’s offense. Teams that can leverage offensive weakness into defensive points win Super Bowls.
A high number of receiving TDs
In a finding that threatens to break the “pass vs. run” debate wide open, I found a major correlation between a high number of receiving TDs and the likelihood to take home the Lombardi trophy. Receiving TDs are an interesting correlation – Super Bowl-winning teams don’t just use the pass to gain yardage, they catch passes for big points.
Picking Superbowl Winners Based on These Trends
I’m going to play around a little with stats and numbers and try to make a pick for the 2023 Super Bowl. The idea here is to give readers an example of how you can use these correlations to help handicap the league in the months and weeks leading up to the NFL season.
Regular Season Win Count
The easiest correlation to check is the regular-season win count. In 2020, the best win-loss record in the AFC went to the Kansas City Chiefs, who went 14-2. Buffalo also put up a high number of wins relative to the field, with a 13-3 record. In the NFC, Green Bay was 13-3. No other team won more than 75% of their games.
How did those three teams play against the spread? The Chiefs went 7-9, not a winning record. Buffalo was 11-5 ATS, so they’re still in contention. The Packers also had a positive turn ATS, going 10-6.
Rushing Attempts per Game
Let’s move on to consider these teams’ rushing attempts per game relative to the field. The Chiefs ran just 24.7 times per game, putting them in the bottom 8 in the league. Buffalo ran slightly fewer rushes per game than Kansas City, at 24.5. The Packers ran slightly more – 27.5 rushes per game, but that’s still not enough to put them in the top 10 for the league. None of these three teams looks good when compared to the rushes per game trend.
When rating teams in terms of their ability to reduce turnovers, the Packers stand out. In 2020, they averaged just 0.7 giveaways per game, about 1 turnover fewer per game than the average team. Kansas City averaged 1.1 per game, easily in the top 8 in the league, but not quite as efficient as Green Bay. The Bills averaged slightly more at 1.2 per game, very near the league average.
When you compare Buffalo, Green Bay, and Kansas City in 2020 in terms of sacks, there’s another clear favorite. Green Bay’s defense averaged 2.4 sacks per game, far more than Buffalo at 1.9 or Kansas city at 1.7. However, Green Bay’s numbers are only good enough for the middle of the league. In 2020, the teams with the best sack numbers were Minnesota and Chicago. They each average just about 3 sacks per regular-season game.
When considering my last correlation – the number of receiving TDs – I found where these three clubs stand out together as a unit. In 2020, the Packs averaged 3 receiving TDs per game, and Buffalo and Kansas City averaged 2.3. All three teams were in the top 5 in the league in this statistic, a number that I find correlates increasingly with league-wide success.
Based on this light example, which I’d like to stress was made for explanatory purposes only, I’d consider backing Green Bay to win it all in 2023.
You can get more out of this simple method by doing a little more legwork. Consider running a complete league simulation, looking at potential divisional winners and wildcards, and mocking matchups in the postseason.
Conclusion – Picking Superbowl Winners
The value in picking Superbowl winners doesn’t necessarily lie in making a good futures bet. Look at recent performances and historical league trends. And consider how next year’s league might shake out. You can set yourself up for betting success by simulating how the league’s playoffs will pan out.
Follow the trends and correlations outlined here. You’ll cut through all the noise and focus on the statistics that matter come February.