Quarter-by-Quarter Scoring in the Super Bowl

When are Super Bowl teams most likely to score during the regular season, and during the big game? And how might this inform our approach to prop betting?

Statistics tell stories. Digging deeper into the stats – putting them into proper context – illuminates these stories. Makes them more vibrant, more clear. Makes them more understandable and, for betting purposes, predictable.

That doesn’t mean statistics in a vacuum are predictable. Quite the opposite. Isolated stats are never predictable. They must be anchored to something. Cause and effect. They also must be fairly consistent.

Something fascinating is happening in Super Bowl after Super Bowl. It’s unexplainable, in that there are no concrete statements from coaching staffs or players explaining “why” it’s happening. But this phenomenon represents a departure from what happens during the regular season.

It is therefore compelling and actionable.

The last 19 Super Bowl runner-ups collectively have averaged more points in each quarter of the regular season than in each quarter of the Super Bowl.

The numbers are shocking:

  • First Quarter Regular Season vs. Super Bowl: 5.7 vs. 2.2
  • Second Quarter Regular Season vs. Super Bowl: 9.0 vs. 6.4
  • Third Quarter Regular Season vs. Super Bowl: 6.6 vs. 6.3
  • Fourth Quarter Regular Season vs. Super Bowl: 7.3 vs. 3.9

In fact, among the 76 quarters that runner-ups have played in the last 19 years (not including the 2016 season’s overtime period), they’ve scored below their regular-season average in 56 quarters (74%).

The consistency of the underperformance throughout the games also is notable. Runner-ups have averaged a 3.7-point drop-off in the first frame, a 3.6-point drop-off in the second, and a 3.4-point drop-off in the fourth.

So, why might runner-ups come closest to their season scoring average in the third quarter? Perhaps who gets the first possession matters. In 12 of the last 19 Super Bowls (63%) – including, amazingly, the last eight Super Bowls – the eventual winner has received the opening kickoff.

Consequently, it’s logical that runner-ups average 2.9 first-quarter points when they receive first in the Super Bowl, but only 1.8 first-quarter points when they kick off first.

The last 19 Super Bowl winners collectively have averaged more points in each of the first three quarters of the regular season than in each of the first three quarters of the Super Bowl.

These numbers are perhaps even more shocking, since we’re talking about winners, not runner-ups:

  • First Quarter Regular Season vs. Super Bowl: 5.0 vs. 4.7
  • Second Quarter Regular Season vs. Super Bowl: 8.4 vs. 8.0
  • Third Quarter Regular Season vs. Super Bowl: 6.6 vs. 4.7

Why might winners lag considerably in third quarters compared to their regular-season averages? Perhaps because they’re usually kicking off to open the second half.
In those 12 contests (63%), they’ve averaged only 4.0 third-quarter points. But in the other seven games – when they receive first in the second half – they’ve averaged 5.9 points (considerably close to their regular-season mark).

But interestingly, they’re not capitalizing on receiving the ball to open the game, averaging only 4.6 points in the 12 first quarters when they’ve received the opening kickoff.

Another striking facet of this research is that, on average, Super Bowl winners have netted 26.2 points per game during the regular season vs. 28.7 for runner-ups. And winners have netted 28.2 points per Super Bowl vs. 18.9 for runner-ups.

So what gives? How can Super Bowl winners that collectively score considerably more than their opponents – despite averaging fewer points during the regular season – fail to match their regular-season scoring totals in the first three quarters.

As it turns out, the answer can be found in fourth quarters . . .

The last 19 Super Bowl winners collectively have averaged 10.4 points in Super Bowl fourth quarters, vs. 6.8 points in regular-season fourth quarters.

As already shared, there are no Holy Grails in data research. But this finding is huge. It ties directly to how these games are played.

With most of the last 19 contests decided in the final frame, trailing teams are inclined to take more risks than they might during the regular season. There’s no tomorrow. There’s only next season.

It’s little wonder, then, that runner-ups score 21% of their Super Bowl points in the fourth quarter, while winning teams score 37% of their Super Bowl points in the fourth.

During the regular season, each side has averaged 26% of their points in the fourth. Super Bowl winners’ fourth-quarter burst has proven to be the difference between winning and losing year after year after year.

In fact, winners have outscored runner-ups in 15 of the last 19 fourth quarters (79%).

The first three quarters matter. But more often than not, the fourth is where would-be winners rise or fall.

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