PUNTERS BETTING ON AMERICAN football might be forgiven for soon thinking that the odds are stacked against them.
Firstly, the National Football League (NFL) operates with a goal of parity - the concept that all 32 competing teams should have as equal a chance of possible of success. The buzzphrase is that on 'any given Sunday' any team can beat any other.
And secondly, the most popular form of gambling on the sport, the handicap line, or points spread, gives the oddsmakers a chance to even up the chances of any two competing teams on any day.
So why bet on a discipline that would appear to be something of a lottery? Well, for starters, attempting to make all teams equal and actually doing so are very different. Injuries, coaching and personnel management are the three main factors which will sort the successful sides from the failures.
The last two of those are crucial to finding a potential Super Bowl winner at the start of the season.
ANTE-POST ACTION Look at any preseason list of Super Bowl odds and you will see the previous year's play-off teams at the top, the teams who had a bad year at the bottom. Bookmakers, maybe because they are keyed into thinking of British football, seemingly assume that changing the status quo is more difficult than it really is and the recent run of big-priced Super Bowl winners should be a salutary lesson that there is nothing absurd about taking a punt on an ante-post outsider.
St Louis were 150-1 when they won the Vince Lombardi Trophy on the arm of zero-to-hero former shelf-stacker Kurt Warner in 1999. Baltimore were 80-1 shots the following year, New England 50-1 when they won in 2001 and 20-1 two years later, while 2002 champs Tampa Bay were the shortest-priced winners of recent seasons and even they were a juicy 18-1.
Common factors among those champions? None had a premium quarterback, all were well-coached and played to their strengths and few people saw them coming.
Don't be drawn into backing teams solely because they have a big-name quarter-back. Assuming a team shares possession in a game, and that, say, 40 per cent of a team's offensive plays are rushes, even the most talented QB will only be able to influence 30 per cent of a match with his passing skills. Don't put too much faith in one member of a 53-man roster.
Look for teams who improved towards the end of the previous season, as the momentum of a strong finish can often be carried over. Carolina, who had showed steady signs of improvement under first-season coach John Fox at the end of 2002, were a classic case of this in 2003, when they reached the Super Bowl as unconsidered 100-1 shots.
It's always worth assessing the relative strengths of a team's division (the sides they place twice) and the apparent strength of schedule they face (teams don't all play each other and some fixtures on a team's schedule are decided by the position in their division they finished the year before) but remember that what appears a tough slate of games at the start of the year can soon prove very different as teams' fortunes rise and fall sharply.