Betting the Super Bowl has become a national mania. Even causual fans feel the need to put a few dollars on the game, and serious gamblers are obsessed with it.
"People want to win this more than any other bet," said Bill Hilton, proprietor of SCORE, the Boston-based handicapping service. "Nobody cares if you won $5,000 on the St. Louis-Atlanta game early in the year, but guys want to be able to tell their buddies they made a score on the Super Bowl. It will carry them all summer."
Since the ineptitude of my own football wagering is well-documented, I solicited opinions on Sunday's Philadelphia-Oakland game from four of the best professional handicappers in the country: Hilton of SCORE; Jim Feist of the National Sports Services in Los Vegas; Rich Bomze of the Sports Reporter in New York; and "Harry," a professional sports bettor whose analyses has been periodically quoted in this column.
The differences among them suggest just how tough this choice is, as befits the final examination in a grueling course.
"This is such a difficult game that we haven't even fully made up our minds yet," Hilton conceded. "But we think in this game you should have the team with the best defense and we think the side with the overpowering defense is Philadelphia. Jim Plunkett's worst game of the year came when he was sacked eight times in Philadelphia.
"We also think that Philadelphia has the edge in coaching. If Dick Vermeil has two weeks to prepare, he could probably win World War III."
Like Hilton, Feist conceded that this is a game on which he wouldn't ordinarily issue a selection -- except that this happens to be the Super Bowl.
"Ordinarily I rate games as three, four or five stars; this would probably be a two-star game," Feist said. "My opinion is that these teams are even, and Philadelphia does not deserve to be a three-point favorite; this game should be a pick. I know all the statistics in the world lean toward Philadelphia, but I think the figures are misleading in this case. Oakland is a big-play team, so they don't gather as many stats. They've got the edge in the kicking game and better wide receivers. I'll take the three points."
Harry felt, too, that the Super Bowl should be a pick 'em proposition. "I'm leaning toward Oakland," he said. "I think Ray Guy's kicking with no wind in the stadium might keep the Eagles from getting any kind of field position.
"I thought Oakland's playoff wins were more impressive than Philadephia's.
And I think that Lester Hayes may be able to negate Harold Carmichael. If he does that, the Eagles' other pass receivers aren't much of a threat. Still, I'm not 100 percent enthused about this game, and I think maybe betting that under 37 points will be scored is better than betting the winner."
Of the handicappers to whom I spoke, only Bomze had a firm opinion on Super Bowl 15. Widely respected by his peers, he analyzed the game with the persuasiveness of a man who knows he is right.
He loves Philadelphia.
"I broke down the statistics on the Eagles very carefully," Bomze said, "and found that they have a better defense against the run than the Steelers did last year. They allowed 96.6 yards per game on the ground. Tony Dorsett got only 41 yards against them for Dallas. When Oakland played in Philadelphia. Kenny King was held to 49 yards."
Bomze is positive that Oakland won't be able to run against Philadelphia, and almost as sure that the Raiders won't be able to pass. "I have very little respect for Plunkett," he said. "In the seven or eight games before the playoff against San Diego, he was about a 35-percent passer -- and anybody can pass against San Diego. I can't expect Plunkett to hit long bombs against the Eagles if he doen't establish any ball control."
Bomze expects the Eagles to move the ball effectively against the Raiders.
"People talk about the Oakland defense as if it is very good, but the Raiders gave up 26 first downs in San Diego. They were outgained, out-firstdowned and outplayed by both San Diego and Cleveland. They won because they got 10 turnovers in those games to four for their opponents."
Some people call this opportunism; Bomze views it as luck, certanily not a factor to be considered in handicapping. "You can't bet a team in the Super Bowl believing that they're going to make things happen," he said. "That's like betting a race on the assumption that one of the jockeys is going to fall off.
"Oakland's 'opportunistic defense' reminds me of Denver's when they played Dallas in the Super Bowl. That was one of the biggest selections I ever made, and I have a very strong conviction about this game, too."
Bomze's analysis persuaded me what to do on Sunday: bet Philadelphia. Although I did swear off betting football earlier this season, anyone should be permitted a small lapse on Super Sunday.