Millman: How Charles Barkley’s $800K Win Started a Super Bowl Trend

Millman: How Charles Barkley’s $800K Win Started a Super Bowl Trend article feature image
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Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports. Pictured: Malcolm Butler and Ricardo Lockette

  • The Patriots have been to eight Super Bowls in the Tom Brady-Bill Belichick era, and have been favored in all but their first.
  • But the Pats have never made things easy for anyone betting on or against them, with every game decided by one score.
  • Here are the seven Super Bowl moments that swung spread bets.

It began, as all good stories do, with Charles Barkley.

The year was 2002, Super Bowl XXXVI. Tom Brady was more “good backup” than “bad mofo”; the Rams had rabid fans in a sleepy town rather than sleepy fans in a glitzy town.

Brady was an accidental tourist in his first Super Bowl. The Rams, the Greatest Show on Turf, were playing in their second in three years. The spread was Rams -14, the third-biggest number in Super Bowl history.

Barkley was staying at the Mandalay Bay in Vegas and, as he has said many times before, he likes to gamble. This particular weekend, he liked the Patriots. A lot. So he strolled up to the counter and put $500,000 on New England at +14.

As a cherry, he put $50K on the Pats on the moneyline. One upset later, he walked away with $800,000.

What happened next?

That was 17 years and eight Super Bowl appearances ago. During this run, the fundamental question for nearly every regular season, playoff game and Super Bowl involving New England has been: Do I really bet against the Patriots?

This past week has seen the answer to that question play out in real time. As soon as bookmakers posted the Rams as 1-point favorites in Super Bowl LIII, professional bettors hit New England so hard the line moved more than three points, to Patriots -2.5.

The Patriots have appeared in so many title games in such improbable ways that analysis from pundits across TV, the Internet, social media, bars and armchairs has generally been reduced to: “All that is true about the (insert opponent here), but at the end of the day it’s the Patriots, they’ll figure something out.”

Their existence inspires defeatists, as if everyone except for Tedy Bruschi is grudgingly resigned to New England’s success.

But, in the Super Bowl at least, the truth is murkier.

A thorough investigation deep into the BetLabs archives (h/t to John Ewing) reveals that, since the Patriots’ first Super Bowl, when they were 14-point underdogs and Barkley had the prescience to bet on them, the Pats have closed as favorites every time they’ve played for a championship.

But, over the years, you have not been suckered by conventional wisdom or Patriot bias or Super Bowl bling or Brady’s impossibly charmed life.

In fact, in four of those seven games, the majority of the bets have been against the Patriots, who have covered only twice. Both of those games (in OT against Atlanta and with a last-second miracle pick on the goal-line against Seattle) were the kind of sweats only seen at the World Sauna Championships, in which people actually die.

Every Pats Super Bowl has been decided by one possession, with the largest margin coming last year against the Eagles, when New England lost 41-33. The other seven games have been decided by three points (four times), four points (two times) and six points (once).

In other words, the Patriots live inside the green zone on Super Bowl Sunday — that terrifying, exhilarating, time frame when one score can swing a bet in either direction. (Also, screw NBC for stealing the name from me, which I coined in the linked column in 2011).

Chances are, if you’re old enough to remember those seven Super Bowls, you are old enough to have bet them. Which means there is a special place in your degenerate heart for the moments in which you cashed in on your deep-seeded hate for the Patriots, or you learned to love them because, well, “it’s the Patriots.”

In order, these are the seven moments I picked out that mattered most to the majority of bettors (i.e., the side with the most tickets) in their past seven Super Bowls.

2004: Super Bowl XXXVIII

    • Spread: Patriots -7
  • Score: Pats 32, Panthers 29
  • Betting Percentage: 66% on Carolina

You may remember this as the Super Bowl Peter King called, “the greatest of all time” after it was over. You may remember that it was watched by 144.4M people, more than ever before. You may remember it as the Janet Jackson nipple-gate game.

I remember it as the Super Bowl where I paid a $20 cover at a random Houston bar because I had to pee so bad and attended my first Playboy party, which was awash with more nipples than the halftime show and featured a chocolate fountain.

But the make or break moment? That’s easy. With the Pats ahead 29-22, 1:56 remaining and the Panthers on the New England 45, Jake Delhomme completed a 31-yard pass to Ricky Proehl.

Two plays later, Delhomme hit Proehl again for the game-tying touchdown. While Brady would lead the Pats back down the field to set up a game-winning field goal, Panthers backers lived that final drive sweat free, knowing that the worst that could happen was a push.

2005: Super Bowl XXXIX

  • Spread: Patriots -7
  • Score: Pats 24, Eagles 21
  • Betting Percentage: 55% on New England

Terrell Owens played with a broken leg! I called the front desk of my Jacksonville hotel to complain about the noise outside while I was trying to work and was told, “Sir, it’s Super Bowl Sunday and it’s the NFL Experience.”

Mostly, it was a crappy game in which Donovan McNabb puked because he may have been out of shape. Then he made Pats backers puke with a 30-yard backdoor cover touchdown pass to Greg Lewis with less than two minutes left, cutting the gap to 24-21.

Like a lot of things with McNabb, it made the game look good on paper, but was far from a masterpiece, unless you backed the Eagles.

2009: Super Bowl XLII

  • Spread: Patriots -12.5
  • Score: Giants 17, Patriots 14
  • Betting Percentage: 60% on New York

The undefeated Pats. Randy Moss. Tom Brady. Puh-leeze.

Looking back, I can’t believe only 60% of the people bet on the Giants. This Pats team may have been the most public of all-time, and bookmakers honored that with a massive number that tilted the betting percentages in the Giants favor. And they gave back.

Credit: John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports. Pictured: David Tyree and Rodney Harrison

While you may be expecting the David Tyree helmet catch in this green-zone moment. I’m going deeper into the play-by-pay. With 22 seconds left in the first half, the Pats were ahead 7-3 and driving, with the ball on the Giants 44.

It had been a defensive battle. Every point mattered. Brady dropped back to get the Pats a few more yards for a field goal. But he was sacked by Osi Umenyiora! The Giants recovered and ran out the clock. No one scored again until the fourth quarter, and the spread was never in doubt.

2012: Super Bowl XLVI

  • Spread: Patriots -3
  • Score: Giants 21, Patriots 17
  • Betting Percentage: 53% on New York

For a moment, it looked like the Pats were going to make the Giants look like the 9-7 team they were all season long. They took the last possession of the first half and scored, setting a record for the longest drive in Super Bowl history. Then they opened the first drive of the second half with a touchdown. They were ahead 17-9 against a Giants offense that hadn’t scored since the first quarter. “It’s the Patriots!”

But then the Giants chipped away, cutting the lead to 17-15. The Patriots had the ball on their own 8-yard line with 10 minutes left. Another long drive to seal it? Well, “It’s the Patriots.”

But on second-and-11 from the Giants 44, Brady threw a pass just a bit too high to Wes Welker, who either should have had it or couldn’t quite get it. Although Giselle would yell after the game, “My husband can’t throw the ball and catch the ball,” so we know what she thought.

The Pats punted, and their bettors felt similarly aggrieved when the Giants marched down to score.

2015: Super Bowl XLIX

  • Spread: Patriots -1
  • Score: Patriots 28, Seahawks 24
  • Betting Percentage: 64% on New England

Malcolm Butler. Next.

2016: Super Bowl LI

  • Spread: Patriots -3
  • Score: Patriots 34, Falcons 28
  • Betting Percentage: 62% on New England

Given the Pats history of not covering in the Super Bowl, why do people just shrug and say, “it’s the Patriots?” Because of this game. New England was down 28-3 midway through the third quarter and not only came back, it covered!

Credit: Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports. Pictured: Tom Brady

Sixty-two percent of bettors went into overtime greedily thinking, “We got a shot to cash a ticket here, people!” And they did. The play that turned this into a winner: Losing 28-3, with the ball on their own 46-yard line, Brady hit Danny Amendola on fourth-and-3. That’s the ballgame, folks. Brady misses and the Falcons get the ball just a few short yards from field goal range. Instead…well, you know how it ends.

2018: Super Bowl LII

  • Spread: Patriots -4.5
  • Score: Eagles 41, Patriots 33
  • Betting Percentage: 52% on Philly

Also known as the first Super Bowl covered by The Action Network, and it was a nutty one with drama from the moment the line opened. It opened at Pats -6 and was bet so heavily by the public and professionals alike, bookmakers were knocked back. They only began to get Pats money over the weekend of the game, when the line settled at Pats -4.5.

You could argue Philly Special is the play that turned this game. But I am offering something much earlier. It was the Rocky moment, after the first couple of rounds when he punches the champ in the mouth and it sets the tone for the rest of the montage. There was 2:34 left in the first quarter, New England had just tied the game at 3-3. The Eagles answered with a three-play, 77-yard touchdown drive, capped by a 34-yard pass from Nick Foles to Alshon Jeffrey. Ka-Pow, right in the kisser.

Confidence for the Eagles, and the 52% of bettors who had them.