The usual pattern is for a tense first quarter as each team tries and fails to establish a running game, then some key turnovers or big passing plays setting the stage for one team taking a significant lead, with the trailing team becoming gradually more desperate, and the leading team's blitzes becoming more all-out, leading to blowout conditions. This is certainly a possibility for tonight's game, but I'm hopeful that whichever team ends up trailing will keep its cool, as both certainly have the capability to score in bunches.
Though the betting favorite is New England, there is big money coming in for the New Jersey Giants: the point spread has shortened since the opening line, and many of the "experts" are predicting the mild upset, which would be a repeat of the huge upset Eli Manning and the Giants pulled against the Patriots four years ago, when they were seeking to achieve only the second undefeated NFL championship season in history (after the '73 Dolphins). The Giants also won a closely-contested regular season game with the Patriots during the regular season last fall. What I find to have little merit is the argument that the Giants have the momentum coming into tonight's game: the Patriots have a ten-game win streak, during which they have sometimes shown the ability to score at will.
My prediction is for a high-scoring game: possibly some early scores leading to a wide-open second half, or just a lot of late-game heroics from both sides. I will go with a score which will win me the office pool, NE 30, NJ 28. With this score the Pats would fail to cover the 3-point spread, but the teams would surpass the over/under line of 54 (see below for a--by now, too late to be useful--analysis of the final digits of teams' final scores in past Super Bowls).
One thing is certain: tonight's game featuring two of the teams with the largest fan bases, representing large TV markets, will get great ratings. Regardless of the S.B. outcome, the NFL is to be congratulated on fully satisfactory season, recovering from the threat of disaster with the preseason lockout. Give the owners credit--and I basically hate their guts, all of them--they gave ground in time and got a good agreement, which the players seem not to have accepted.
Tonight's American football game would need to do a lot to reach the emotional excitement of this morning's English football game from Chelsea's Stamford Bridge stadium--televised on Fox's regular network, with (intense Arsenal fan) Piers Morgan coming over from CNN to help out with the broadcast.
The teams have had a great rivalry in the last decade, often decisive in the Premier League competition, and sometimes even in the Champions League; each has suffered rare home losses at the hands of their opponent (Chelsea, for example, lost a key Champions League game at home last spring, probably cooking the goose of last year's coach), and most of their games have been close ones (the Champions League final in Moscow four years ago being an example: Chelsea lost in penalty kicks when John Terry slipped while taking his shot).
This week's game had all the hoopla but a little less at stake: Chelsea fell off the pace with a shaky spell late last fall, while Manchester United has so far been outplayed by its crosstown rival, Manchester City, whose surge of expensive player purchases has finally paid off this year with a solid team getting more than its share of good fortune. Man U. needed a win to get back to a virtual tie with "City", while Chelsea needed not to lose to hang onto fourth place (fourth being the critical dividing line at season's end between those teams getting a place in the Champions League and those in the second-level Europa competition).
The game had three distinct phases, something like the S.B. experience I described above. The first third of the game was scoreless, with Chelsea tentative and Man U. unable to use its ball possession to do much, either. The second third--bridging both sides of the halftime break--was all Chelsea: first, an "own goal" (going off a defender) set up by superior ball control by Chelsea's Daniel Sturridge. (His move--pushing it along the end line, which eliminates the possibility of an offsides call, then centering the ball backwards at close range toward teammates and defenders--has been producing a lot of these own goals recently.)
Then, after the half, Chelsea scored two brilliant goals: the first off a wonderful cross from Fernando Torres with a well-timed volley from the back post by Juan Mata, the best of Chelsea's additions this season. Torres has been struggling to score, but partly that is because he draws a big crowd of defenders, and he used that effectively to create a wide space for Mata to convert the perfect pass. The third goal was a free kick by Mata headed in by David Luiz.
Some may have thought that 3-0 lead with 30 minutes left was a safe one, but I knew better. Man U. applied the pressure and was rewarded with two penalty kicks in the next 15 minutes, both converted by arch-foe Wayne Rooney, the second penalty award being a faulty call by the referee. (Why does Man U. always get awarded the penalty kicks, and their opponents, never?) Their third goal, with 10 minutes left, was well-earned, badly defended, and converted by Chicharrito--Javier Hernandez of Mexico--the most recently-acquired and deadliest of Man U.'s many weapons. The last 10 minutes were wild and woolly, Chelsea's ace goalie Petr Cech doing well, but Man U's De Gea making the save of the match on another Mata free kick in the last five minutes.
The 3-3 result did not fully satisfy either team--both coaches complained of the refereeing afterwards--but at least Chelsea impeded Man U's chances to retake first place, while avoiding a damaging loss. (I predicted a 2-2 score on Chelsea's website, correctly calling for goals from Rooney and Mata.) Chelsea's goals for the season are straightforward: finish no worse than 4th in the EPL, and win either the F.A. Cup or the Champions League. Man U. has been eliminated from both of those competitions, so for them it's all about winning the Premier League battle with City.
The players and the coaches hate the compressed, shortened regular season, but I don't share their opinion: their normal regular season is too long, too slack in terms of effort and stakes. This season there was not enough preparation and conditioning, and that combined with the concentrated weekly load of games has led to a rash of injuries, and those are having a strong influence on the battle for playoff positions.
The Miami Heat still looks to be the best team--they have now augmented their Big 3 of James-Wade-Bosh with a better supporting cast--though the best records belong to the upstart Oklahaoma City Thunder (the Durant-Westbrook axis has been dominant) and the Chicago Bulls (Derrick Rose defending his MVP title well). The defending champion Dallas Mavericks have fallen off the pace as I predicted in my preseason review, and the Lakers and Celtics, who have been injury-ridden, are also underperforming. The big suprise of the early season has been the strong play of the Philadelphia 76ers; they are such a surprise that they haven't even been scheduled for national TV games thus far, so I don't have much to say about them. I will say that they destroyed our local team, the Bulls, when Chicago showed up short-handed and tired, and that they have a mix of underrated veterans (like Andre Iguodala and Elton Brand) and rising stars (like their young point guard Jrue Holliday). More healthy teams in the East is definitely a good sign for the league, so this helps make up for the disappointments from the Amare Stoudamire/Carmelo Anthony Knicks and Deron Williams' Nets.
Footnote on Super Bowl Betting Squares
A little empirical data from the history of the first 45 Super Bowls:
The winning team's last digit of the final score is well distributed: all 10 digits have at least 3 occurrences, with the leading ones being 7 (7 times), 1 and 4 (6 times) and 6 (5).
Not so the losing team digit: 2 and 8 have never occurred, and 5 only once for the losing team (last year). 7 and 0 are the winning choices for losers: the loser has had a score ending in 7 twelve times, and 0 eight times (though never a shutout).
In terms of the 55 combinations, there are 27 that have never occurred and 16 that have happened once. The leading combination is 7-4 (or 4-7) which has occurred 5 times in 45 years. Ones that have occurred 3 times are 1-5 and 0-7, and the following have occurred twice: 7-7, 6-0, 5-0, 7-3, 6-3, 4-3, 9-0, 4-1, and 7-1.
I hope this has told you all you need for me to tell you--if not, too bad! Please note I'm only looking at final scores--quarter-end odds may differ.