The 2018 NFL season kicks off in two weeks, and for the third consecutive year — and eighth time since 2005 — the New England Patriots are the betting markets’ preseason favorites to win the Super Bowl.1 The Los Angeles Rams, Minnesota Vikings and Pittsburgh Steelers are all currently tied as the next most favored, followed by the Green Bay Packers and the defending-champion Philadelphia Eagles.2
Thanks to a Supreme Court decision in May that struck down a federal law prohibiting sports gambling in most states, topics like Super Bowl odds — and point spreads, money lines, over-unders, prop bets, parlays and teasers — are set to become a bigger part of the mainstream sports experience than ever before. Since the decision, Delaware, Mississippi and New Jersey have joined Nevada in offering full-scale legalized sports betting, with several states poised to follow.
Against this backdrop, and as the start of the NFL season nears, we thought it worthwhile to explore how teams’ preseason odds to win the Super Bowl typically play out over the course of the season. Where on the odds board do Super Bowl winners and losers come from? And how do preseason favorites and almost-favorites usually fare?
At +600 (6 to 1),3 the Patriots have an implied probability of 14.3 percent to win the Super Bowl,4 highest in the NFL. Last year, the Patriots were +250 (2.5 to 1) before the start of the season, which translated to a 28.6 percent chance — they were, in other words, a considerably heavier favorite than they are today.
The 2018 Rams, Vikings and Steelers are all +1000 (10 to 1), which suggests a 9.1 percent probability. Meanwhile, the Buffalo Bills and Tampa Bay Buccaneers currently have this season’s longest odds — 200 to 1, or a 0.5 percent chance at a Super Bowl ring.
In the past 17 NFL seasons, only two preseason favorites have gone on to hoist the Lombardi Trophy — the 2006 Indianapolis Colts (+600) and the 2016 Patriots (+650). But preseason favorites haven’t exactly fallen apart, either. Only four since 2001 have missed the playoffs,5 and in most seasons, the favorite or co-favorite actually made the Super Bowl. They just had a funny habit of losing when they got there.
|Preseason Odds to Win Super Bowl||Season Results|
|Season||Preseason Favorite(s)||Money Line||Implied Prob.||Wins||Playoffs|
|2017||New England||+250||29||13||Lost SB|
|2016||New England||+650||13||14||Won SB|
|2015||Green Bay||+500||17||10||Lost Div|
|San Francisco||+650||13||12||Lost Conf|
|2012||Green Bay||+600||14||11||Lost Div|
|2011||New England||+600||14||13||Lost SB|
|2009||New England||+500||17||10||Lost WC|
|2007||New England||+250||29||16||Lost SB|
|New England||+500||17||10||Lost Div|
|2001||St. Louis||+400||20||14||Lost SB|
That’s made for some pretty good David-vs.-Goliath Super Bowl theater, often featuring Brady and the Pats. New England took down the preseason-favorite Rams in Super Bowl XXXVI after coming into the 2001 season as a 60-to-1 longshot. The Giants upset the preseason-favorite Patriots after the 2007 and 2011 seasons, and the Eagles did it to them again in February. Not bad for NFL scriptwriters — or the NFC East. Oddly, despite being the preseason Super Bowl favorite at least seven other times since 2001, the Patriots won four of their five Super Bowls when they weren’t favored coming into the season.
So if preseason favorites don’t win the Super Bowl, who does? It turns out that if you want your favorite NFL team to win it all, you should hope it enters the season as kind of likely to do so. Nine of the past 17 champions — the majority — have had the fourth to ninth best preseason odds, with an average around +1400 (14 to 1). If recent history is any indication, the Packers, Eagles, Saints, Chargers, Falcons and Jaguars are in an attractive position as we near Week 1.
|Preseason Odds to Win SB||Made Super Bowl?||Average Wins|
|Rank||Average||Won||Lost||Prior Season||New Season|
But does recent history really tell us anything? We’re only dealing with 17 seasons here, so the sample size is small. Four champions have still come from among the top three most heavily favored teams heading into a given season. And we could just as well have seen a slew of preseason favorites win the Super Bowl — the 2001 Rams, 2004 Eagles, 2007 Patriots, 2011 Patriots, 2014 Seahawks and 2017 Patriots each came up only a play or drive short.
|Preseason Odds to Win Super Bowl|
|Season||Super Bowl Winner||Money Line||Implied Prob.||Implied Rank|
|2011||New York Giants||+2000||5||11|
|2007||New York Giants||+3000||3||15|
Keep this in mind, too: Preseason Super Bowl odds tell us more about the season that just ended than the one that’s about to start.6 There’s a fairly strong negative correlation (-0.75) between teams’ regular-season win totals the previous season and their rankings in the odds before the start of the next season — the more games a team won last year, the lower, or better, their preseason odds rank becomes. And there’s only a modest negative correlation (-0.42) between teams’ preseason odds rankings and their performance in the season that the odds purport to cover. NFL teams generally revert toward the mean, undermining the accuracy of preseason odds that are mostly based on what each team did last season.
So have some fun analyzing this year’s preseason Super Bowl odds, agree or disagree, and compare them with FiveThirtyEight’s NFL projections in a couple of weeks if you’re curious to see how the betting markets and Elo differ. But above all, take them with a grain of salt — unless a team with the fourth to ninth best odds wins the Super Bowl. If that happens, you heard it here first.