“It should be a close game” … how many times have you heard that about an upcoming Super Bowl? For the most part, that has been correct. Of the past 26 Super Bowls, 18 of them have gone down to the final minutes or seconds, compared with only eight of the first 31 big games. This year’s Super Bowl, between the Kansas City Chiefs and San Francisco 49ers, is currently just two points as of this writing (49ers -2).
But several times, the oddsmakers didn’t expect closely contested games, to the tune of 14 double-digit spreads.
This was the case with all four Super Bowls that came before the merger of the AFL and NFL was finalized. Since the AFL teams and NFL teams did not play each other during the regular season, the oddsmakers had nothing to go by in determining their point spreads for the first four games (1967-1970). Those spreads were always large, as the NFL was widely considered to be the better league.
Pre-Merger Super Bowl Point Spreads
Colts -18 vs Jets (SB3,1969)
Packers -14 vs Chiefs (SB1, 1967)
Packers -13.5 vs Raiders (SB2, 1968)
Vikings -12 vs Chiefs (SB4, 1970)
Despite the larger spreads — always with the NFL teams heavily favored over the AFL participants — the two leagues actually split these Super Bowls, with the Packers taking the first two and the AFL’s Jets and Chiefs winning Super Bowl III and IV.
A more interesting list is the biggest Super Bowl point spreads after the merger, which happens to be dominated by modern matchups.
Biggest Post-Merger Super Bowl Point Spreads
San Francisco 49ers (-18.5) vs San Diego Chargers, 1995
Final score: 49ers 49, Chargers 26
This was the fifth and final title of San Francisco’s dynasty. Steve Young, Joe Montana’s successor, threw six touchdown passes — a Super Bowl record that still stands — including three to Jerry Rice, covering the massive 18.5-point spread in the process. The Niners — loaded with greats, including future Hall of Famers Young, Rice and Deion Sanders — had toppled mighty Dallas in the NFC title game while the upstart Chargers, led by QB Stan Humphries, pulled off an upset over heavily favored Pittsburgh in the AFC Championship Game to get to the Super Bowl. A second upset was not in the cards.
St. Louis Rams (-14) vs New England Patriots, 2002
Final score: Patriots 20, Rams 17
Apparently, the bookies didn’t think too highly of the Patriots’ first-year starting QB, Tom Brady. Maybe they thought he was lucky to even be there, considering this bit of good fortune. Moreover, only two years earlier, the ultra-emotional Dick Vermeil and former grocery store worker QB Kurt Warner had led the Rams to the franchise’s first title with “The Greatest Show on Turf” and were considered to be a burgeoning NFL dynasty.
But Brady threw a TD pass to help NE build a 17-3 lead, and ultimately drove the Pats downfield for an Adam Vinatieri field goal as time expired to win it for the first of Brady’s seven NFL titles.
Green Bay Packers (-14) vs New England Patriots, 1997
Final score: Packers 35, Patriots 21
After Drew Bledsoe led New England to a 14-10 lead in an entertaining first quarter, Brett Favre threw for a touchdown and ran for a score in a 17-point explosion in the second quarter to take control of the game. Oddly, the game’s MVP award went to former Michigan star Desmond Howard, who had a 99-yard kickoff return touchdown to squash any hopes of a Patriot comeback. Howard finished with 244 return yards on kickoffs and punts combined.
Dallas Cowboys (-13.5) vs Pittsburgh Steelers, 1996
Final score: Cowboys 27, Steelers 17
Dallas, having crushed the Buffalo Bills in 1993 and 1994, had one of the greatest rosters in NFL history – QB Troy Aikman, RB Emmitt Smith, WR Michael Irvin, CB Deion Sanders, DE Charles Haley and a formidable offensive line. Meanwhile, the Steelers made it to the Super Bowl on the arm of not-as-legendary QB Neil O’Donnell.
Pittsburgh fought back from a 20-7 deficit to make it a 3-point game in the fourth quarter, but O’Donnell’s second interception of the half — both terrible picks thrown directly to Dallas CB (and Super Bowl MVP) Larry Brown — sealed the Steelers’ fate. Smith secured Dallas’ fifth franchise title with a 4-yard touchdown run to end the scoring at 27-17.
New England Patriots (-12) vs New York Giants, 2008
Final score: Giants 17, Patriots 14
Tom Brady and Randy Moss led the Patriots to the greatest regular season in NFL history with a 16-0 record. In the regular season, Brady threw for 4,806 yards and 50 touchdowns and only eight interceptions. Moss gave the Patriots the biggest vertical threat in franchise history, with 98 receptions for 1,493 yards and 23 TDs. Brady also had his favorite underneath target as well, Wes Welker, who had a whopping 112 receptions for 1,175 yards. The Pats scored a record 589 points, an average of 36.8 points per game.
The Giants, meanwhile, were led by high risk-high reward Eli Manning (23 TD, 20 INTs) and 1,000-yard rusher Brandon Jacobs.
But NYG led the league in sacks, and a strong pass rush was the only real kryptonite in Brady’s storied career. Defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo (now the Chiefs’ DC) crafted a masterful game plan and the pass rush, led by Michael Strahan, got to Brady five times.
Manning – aided by one of the most amazing catches in SB history – led a last-minute drive and capped it with a TD pass to Plaxico Burress to shock the Patriots and much of the NFL world. The 1972 Miami Dolphins are still the only NFL team to have a perfect undefeated season throughout the playoffs.
Big Differences Between Spread and Outcome
Baltimore Colts (-18) vs New York Jets, 1969
Final score: Jets 16, Colts 7
Coached by the legendary Don Shula, the Colts at the time were considered one of the greatest teams of all time. They were 13-1 in the regular season, gave up the fewest points on defense and scored the second-most points on offense in the NFL.
However, the Jets had a dynamic air attack, as was the style in the American Football League. Strong-armed “Broadway” Joe Namath threw a lot of interceptions but also passed for 224.8 yards per game, which was a lot in that era. Don Maynard had 1,297 yards receiving, an astounding amount for that time, and George Sauer had 1,141 yards.
Prior to the Super Bowl, Namath did his best Muhammad Ali by guaranteeing a Jets victory. Joe did his part, completing 17 of 28 passes for 206 yards and leading four scoring drives. But the Jets defense was the unheralded star, as Colts legend Johnny Unitas only led a desperation late TD drive to avoid the shutout.
Washington Redskins (-3) vs Los Angeles Raiders, 1984
Final score: Raiders 38, Redskins 9
Propelled by the “Hogs” on the offensive line, the ‘Skins set a then-NFL record for points scored in the regular season with 541. NFL MVP QB Joe Theismann threw for 3,714 yards and 29 touchdowns, power back John Riggins rushed for 1,347 yards and 24 touchdowns and wide receivers Charlie Brown (1,225) and big Art Monk (746) were great targets for Theismann as Washington seemed headed for a second straight title.
But the Raiders had a bunch of tough dudes on defense – Howie Long, Lester Hayes, Ted “The Stork” Hendricks, Lyle Alzado, Matt Millen, Reggie Kinlaw and Rod Martin – and dynamic second-year running back Marcus Allen.
The game was a complete mismatch, marked by terrible Washington execution – Derrick Jensen’s blocked punt and end zone recovery, Jack Squirek’s perfectly timed pick-six, and Allen’s 74-yard touchdown for the dagger.
Raiders QB Jim Plunkett threw a touchdown pass for his second Super Bowl victory and he remains the only QB with multiple titles who has yet to be voted into the Hall of Fame after becoming eligible for Canton.
Denver Broncos (-2) vs Seattle Seahawks, 2014
Final score: Seahawks 43, Broncos 8
NFL MVP Peyton Manning set the single-season record for touchdown passes (55) and yards (5,477), and the Broncos scored the most points ever (606) – nearly 38 per game.
But Seattle had one of the best defenses in NFL history, led by the so-called ‘Legion of Boom’ – defensive backs Richard Sherman, Kam Chancellor and Earl Thomas, and linebackers Bruce Irving, K.J. Wright and Bobby Wagner.
The offense was led by second-year starter Russell Wilson (3,357 yards passing, 539 rushing) with a big arm and football IQ to match, RB Marshawn “Beast Mode” Lynch (1,257 yards) and WR Golden Tate (898 yards).
In Super Bowl XLVIII, the Broncos’ first play went horribly wrong and it just got worse from there. Lynch scored from 1 yard out, Malcolm Smith had a 69-yard pick-six of Manning and Percy Harvin scored on a 87-yard kickoff return in one of the most thorough Super Bowl dominations in NFL history.
Green Bay Packers (-11) vs Denver Broncos, 1998
Final score: Broncos 31, Packers 24
Led by two-time NFL MVP Brett Favre, Green Bay had won 12 of 13 games going into the big game. Favre had thrown 35 TD passes and Dorsey Levens had rushed for 1,435 yards for the Pack.
But the Broncos had John Elway, who had thrown 27 TD passes and was still seeking his first title after losing three Super Bowls in 1987, 1988 and 1990. Denver also had Terrell Davis, who ran for 1,750 yards and 15 TDs in the regular season, WR Rod Smith (1,180 receiving yards) and TE Shannon Sharpe (1,107 yards).
In the title game, Elway was a pedestrian 12-of-22 for 123 yards and no TDs. But Davis put the offense on his shoulders, rushing 30 times for 157 yards and three touchdowns, the final one being the eventual winning score.
Denver Broncos (-3) vs Washington Redskins, 1988
Final score: Redskins 42, Broncos 10
NFL MVP John Elway threw for nearly 3,200 yards and 19 touchdowns – and ran for four more – in the 12-game strike-shortened season and the Broncos put up 72 points in their two playoff games. The Skins countered with Doug Williams, the former Grambling star whose career started 0-26 for the expansion Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the 1976 and 1977 seasons.
Williams was 0-2 during the regular season but had replaced ineffective Jay Schroeder and guided Washington to two playoff victories.
Denver got off to a 10-0 start, but Washington – in an offensive blitz that likely will never happen again – scored five touchdowns in the second quarter to take a 35-10 lead at halftime. Williams threw four TD passes in the quarter, including 80-yard and 50-yard strikes to Ricky Sanders, and Timmy Smith ripped off a 58-yard TD run.
Williams completed 9 of 11 passes for 228 yards during the quarter and became the first African-American quarterback to win the Super Bowl.
Shrinking Title Windows: Which NBA Greats Have the Best Shot at a First Ring?
by Alex Valdes
College Basketball Check-In: Conference Leaders, Futures, and Best Bets
by Dale Weber
The Embiid Dilemma: Examining the Effects of the NBA’s 65-Game Rule
by Sam Bloomquist
MLB Offseason: Checking In on Futures and Free Agents
by Dale Weber
A Guide To NBA Prop Bets