Superbowl LV: Kansas City Chiefs @ Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Updated: Feb 9, 2021
Backing Tom Brady in the unlikely role of Cinderella: Tampa Bay Bucs +3
Many objective power rankings systems give Tampa Bay the edge plus the points in Superbowl LV Sunday. The FiveThirtyEight model makes the Chiefs about two points better then the Bucs on a neutral field, ESPN's FPI gives the defending champs a less than one point edge, Massey-Peabody gives Kansas City about a 1.5 points advantage, while The Action Network favors Mahomes and company by about 2.5...the value with Tampa Bay increases if we ascribe some modest value for home field advantage, given the proceedings will play out at the Bucs' Raymond James Stadium, before 25,000 live bodies.
But despite the quantitative edge most models appear to indicate for the Bucs plus the field goal, 58% of spread bets and 56% of dollars tracked by the Action Network are down on the Chiefs. History suggests it likely psychology is getting the better of the crowd.
Empirical study has found that casual bettors exhibit a predilection toward backing better teams (favorites) to cover the spread, even though the betting line generally pretty accurately adjusts for good teams' advantages. Consistent with this thinking, the BetLabs database contains 3,862 instances since 2003 where at least 55% of NFL spread bets were on the favorite, and only 848 times where the public flocked toward underdogs to the same extent.
We suppose the superfluous pageantry and hype surrounding the highest-profile sporting event in the country drums up interest among casual bettors, and as such, the affair tends to see among the biggest betting volume of the year (last season's Superbowl might have accounted for 4-5% of all dollars bet on sporting events in the country). But we observe evidence that uninitiated gamblers generally make biased, emotional decisions that tend to not pan out. We suspect today's big game offers an occasion to exploit such biases.
In the past, when the public gravitated en masse toward NFL playoff favorites, underdogs tended to beat the number. The simple system of backing unloved underdogs in the post-season has delivered a 10% return on investment since 2003, and is 5-2 ATS this season.
Separately, as wild as it sounds to consider a player with Tom Brady's success a Cinderella-story, we see parallels between the Bucs current post-season run and the fabled Brothers Grimm tale: After dispatching the also-ran Washington Football Team in the Wildcard Round of the post-season, bookmakers, Anastaisa and Drizella, disrespected the Bucs, casting them as underdogs in Divisional Round action. And even after Tampa Bay likely ushered Drew Brees into retirement with a two-score win at New Orleans the next week, the evil bookies slated Tampa Bay as underdogs again in the Conference Championship. But not even Aaron Rodgers could interrupt Tampa Bay's destiny to make an appearance at the grand ball, and the Bucs ultimately bypassed Green Bay. Now, after upending the Saints and Packers, the Bucs will take points yet again in the big dance. History hints that Brady can still cut a rug or two Sunday before the clock strikes midnight.
Teams that advanced to the Superbowl via underdog wins have been tremendous bets in recently history, delivering a 76% ROI (and while the size of this sample is notably small, the result nonetheless proved highly statistically significant).
From a fundamental perspective, the Football Outsiders' Defense-adjusted Value Over Average stat (DVOA) gives Tampa Bay the overall advantage Sunday. The Chiefs boast a marginally better offense and special teams corps, but the Bucs' defense ranks top-ten against both the run and the pass; the Chiefs' D is only mediocre versus the pass and is terrible versus the rushing game.
Kansas City's defensive strategy appears to be make the rush game the path of least resistance for opposing offenses, as it is unlikely teams will seriously threaten the Chiefs high-octane offense running the ball. However, its efficacy is dubious, as Kansas City ranks 13th by rushing plays as a percentage of the opposition's offense.
Calling the effectiveness of the Chiefs' perversion of the run-funnel defense in question even more, Kansas City has struggled versus the number this year against teams with the best ability to move the pigskin through the air.
KC is 3-6 ATS facing teams that finished the season with a top-ten passing DVOA ranking (Tampa Bay features the 5th best aerial attack in the NFL, by this measure).
Accordingly, we are looking for the home team to, at the very least, keep things close.
Bottom line: We have observed several reasons to back the Bucs to cover Superbowl LV, including objective power-rankings based indications that make the Chiefs only slight favorites, a supportive historical context that hints that the public is too frothy about the possibility of Mahomes building on his budding greatness, and a fundamental rationale, rooted in Tampa Bay's dominant defense and Kansas City's limited ability to stop elite passing games. So, as much as we hate Tom Brady (but this is a story for another time), our objective selves have to back the old man in the ballroom gown Sunday. #GoBucs!