LAS VEGAS -- It was a year ago this week when I was doing advance work on my "best early Super Bowl LI value bets" column that was set to run right after the conclusion of last year's Super Bowl on Sunday, Feb. 7.
As I do with all my advance future-bet columns, I wasn't looking at the top betting choices but rather at the rest of the teams, trying to find the ones with the best chance to take a big step forward with odds that exceed what I feel their "true odds" are. I landed on the Atlanta Falcons as my top value play at odds of 40-1, and this is my story of how I ended up with a 100-1 ticket on them heading into Super Bowl LI.
The Falcons were coming off an 8-8 season in which they missed the playoffs, but I saw a lot of positive signs. Atlanta started the 2015 season 5-0, and although the schedule was soft, there were a lot of people who thought they were the best team in the NFC South, even better than the Carolina Panthers. Well, the rest of the season didn't go quite as well, as they faded from the playoff picture due to a porous defense and an offense that failed to complete drives, with Matt Ryan getting a lot of the blame for poor decisions and critical red zone interceptions.
I knew the potential was there to have one of the best offenses in the league (there was a stretch when Ryan-to-Julio Jones was virtually unstoppable), and I had faith that first-year head coach Dan Quinn, who helped build Seattle's "Legion of Boom" defense, would improve the Atlanta defense in his second season. The clincher was when the Falcons beat the Panthers 20-13 in Week 16. Carolina was still going for an undefeated season, and the Falcons spoiled that, which showed me they could play with anyone.
I recorded my video the week before the Super Bowl and then wrote my column that appeared on ESPN Chalk after the Super Bowl with the Falcons as my top betting value at 40-1.
The Falcons stayed mostly at 40-1 during the spring, and I wrote an updated best value bets column after the main part of the free-agent signing period that appeared on ESPN Chalk on April 8. I felt that the Falcons were still the best bet on the board at 40-1 and also cited the signing of center Alex Mack to help solidify the offensive line.
During the rest of the offseason, the market didn't agree with my prediction, as the Falcons' odds started to slowly drift upward to 50-1, then 60-1, then 80-1 and finally 100-1, as the preseason was drawing to a close.
Along the way, and while doing other NFL betting previews (including over/under season win totals), I made bets on the Falcons to go over seven wins (and also over 7.5 wins) and also got 10-1 on them to win the NFC South. But I was waiting to make my Super Bowl wager until I felt the line had peaked.
On Tuesday, Sept. 6, I was wrapping up work on our Ultimate Pro Football Betting Guide for ESPN Chalk that was published on Sept. 8 and was again touting the Falcons as the best bet on the board at 100-1 when I looked at the latest odds from the Westgate SuperBook and saw Atlanta had been lowered to 80-1. I ended up having to post my pick at 80-1 but mentioned that it was available as high as 100-1.
I thought I had missed out on 100-1, but fortunately I checked my William Hill smartphone app and it was still 100-1 at their books, so I bet it at that time.
I also gave out the Falcons as my top value pick on the first ESPN Chalk podcast on Friday, Sept. 9, with Doug Kezirian and Anita Marks, along with the Falcons' over/under season win total.
I wasn't too thrilled when the Falcons lost their season opener 31-24 to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and their odds were raised to 150-1 (no, I wasn't confident enough to bet them again at that price!) but they quickly got back on track the next week with a 35-28 win at Oakland in Week 2, a 45-32 win at New Orleans on ESPN's Monday Night Football in Week 3, a crucial 48-33 win over Carolina in Week 4 to take control of the division and a 23-16 win at Denver in Week 5. They lost 26-24 at Seattle in Week 6, though they certainly weren't embarrassed, and most of us remember that a controversial non-call of pass interference by Richard Sherman against Jones kept the Falcons from a possible game-winning field goal.
It was kind of frustrating during the course of the season to keep hearing all the experts on TV, radio and in print saying the Panthers started as the best team in the NFC, then were supplanted by the Seahawks, then the undefeated Vikings, then the Cowboys for the most part of the season. The Falcons were always an afterthought, but I kept writing each week (in my "Tuley's Take" part of our weekly NFL picks here at ESPN Chalk) that the Falcons were my preseason value pick to win the Super Bowl. I knew that even if they didn't make it to the Super Bowl, it was still a pretty good pick, as they certainly outplayed their odds.
Even when we got to the playoffs, there were more people picking the Packers to represent the NFC than the Falcons. Yet, here I am, just one game from cashing a future-book ticket at 100-1.
I've been pleased throughout the season to hear from readers, who either bet the Falcons after reading my advice during the offseason or jumped on the bandwagon after the season started. Many have already cashed on the Falcons going over their season win total or winning the division or the NFC, while others are holding juicy tickets on them winning the Super Bowl. I would love to hear from more in the comments section below about which bets you have and if you're planning to hedge in the Super Bowl.
Personally, I did hedge a few hundred dollars on the Seahawks +6.5 in the divisional round but gambled in the conference championship game by not hedging on the Packers prior to kickoff. I figured I could still hedge with in-game wagering and get around pick-em, even if the Packers grabbed an early lead. Fortunately, the Falcons scored a touchdown on their opening drive and never looked back, and I didn't have to hedge a penny.
I'm still debating what to do against New England. The money line has started to come down on the Patriots (-145 at some books after being more than -160 earlier in the week), so that's the most prudent option. Regardless of what I end up doing, I'll be leaving the most profit on the Atlanta side, since I've been cheering for this pick for a whole year.