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    Penalties in the Big Game

    A Super Bowl contender that led the league in regular-season penalties. A more disciplined opponent. Who’s more likely to win, and how might in-game penalties shake things up?

    Some penalties – like offensive holding – can be drive-killers. Other penalties – like defensive pass interference or even defensive holding – can sustain drives that otherwise might have ended with a punt.

    Some penalties are more costly than others, and it’s not always about yardage. A false start on 4th-and-1 from the opposing 1-yard line could turn a high-probability TD lunge into a mere field goal. But while a defensive pass interference might yield chunk yards to an offense, if the targeted receiver could have turned that catch into a score, then the penalty probably was worth it.

    The following findings highlight the issue’s complexity. There’s an intuitiveness and logic to many of these results. But they don’t always fall along neat-and-tidy patterns, especially as we dig deeper.

    The less-penalized team in the game has won 14 times (74%).

    This is the anchor of our penalty findings. If it holds true in the coming decades, it will reinforce conventional wisdom: On the whole, disciplined teams that minimize penalties are more likely to prevail on the biggest stage.

    The less-penalized team in the game’s first quarter has won six times (32%) and lost seven times (37%). In the other six contests, each team received the same number of penalties.

    This data suggests risks in drawing premature conclusions. In most Super Bowls this century, the final lead change hasn’t occurred until the fourth quarter or overtime. So, what happens in the opening frame hasn’t had an outsized impact on the rest of the game.

    And even in blowouts, the winning team might incur more early penalties.

    For example, 18 years ago, the Patriots were penalized four times in the opening quarter, compared to zero for the Eagles. The same split happened between the Seahawks (four first-quarter penalties) and Broncos (zero) nine years ago. In both cases, the more penalized first-quarter team won.

    What was the difference? New England edged Philly 24-21, while Seattle took the lead only seconds into their game and never looked back, prevailing 43-8.

    The less-penalized team in the game’s first half has won 11 times (58%) and lost seven times (37%). In the other contest, each team received the same number of penalties.

    Now things get a bit more interesting. One quarter isn’t enough to paint a complete picture. But after a full half, a trend begins to form.

    Interestingly, 12 of the last 19 Super Bowl winners (63%) have had two or fewer first-half penalties, compared to only seven runner-ups (37%). The differences have been even starker in the last 14 years, with winners averaging 2.1 penalties per first half and runner-ups averaging more than 50% more (3.3).

    The less-penalized regular-season team has won 10 Super Bowls (53%) and lost nine (47%).

    Are less-penalized regular-season teams somehow better positioned to win the big game? Apparently not. In fact, Super Bowl winners have averaged 99.1 regular-season penalties, while runner-ups have averaged only 2% more (101.5).

    The team with the most favorable penalty differential (Super Bowl penalties vs. per-game regular-season penalties) has won 15 Super Bowls (79%) and lost four (21%).

    There are no Holy Grails in data research, but this one comes close on the subject of penalties. We already know that in-game infractions have some measurable impact on Super Bowl success. But these findings go several steps further.

    We analyzed the regular-season penalty totals for each Super Bowl team on a per-game basis. Then, we compared those per-game numbers to each team’s Super Bowl penalty total. In the process, we tested the hypothesis that Super Bowl teams showing more penalty discipline than usual (compared to their opponent) was more likely to win.

    For example, 10 years ago, the Ravens averaged a sizable 7.6 penalties per game during the regular season, while the 49ers averaged 6.8. But in their Super Bowl matchup, Baltimore accrued only two penalties (5.6 below their season average), while San Francisco accumulated five (1.8 below their season average).

    Both teams exhibited more discipline. But the Ravens’ margin of discipline was larger.

    Returning to our in-game betting scenarios, it’s not always sufficient to look at the raw numbers. To what extent is each team performing better than they did during the regular season? The answers might offer sharp clues on how to wager.

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