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David and Goliath: Super Bowl 51 pits a perennial favorite against an all-time long shot

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A Falcons’ victory on Sunday would make Atlanta the longest-shot champion in at least 20 years.

Houston - As Atlanta Falcons players emerge from a Minute Maid Park tunnel—through a field of smoke-machine fog—most point phones or GoPro cameras toward the crowd and nearby media. Hours later, when the New England Patriots make a similar entrance, they hold far fewer devices aloft. The Super Bowl spectacle is hardly novel for that franchise, which has now reached the NFL’s championship game seven times in the past 15 years, and three in the past six. Back in September, most everyone expected the Patriots to be here—and almost no one saw the Falcons coming. Nowhere were those trends more visible than in Las Vegas sports books.

New England entered the season at the top of the futures betting board, a 6-to-1 pick to win the Super Bowl at the Westgate Las Vegas SuperBook. With a win on Sunday, the Patriots—favored by three points over the Falcons—will become the first team in a decade to live up to its status as preseason favorites (the 2006-’07 Indianapolis Colts did it most recently).

A Falcons’ victory, conversely, would make Atlanta the longest-shot champion in at least 20 years—as far back as reliable futures information exists—with an upset. Bettors ignored Atlanta so much before the season began, the Falcons went from a 40-to-1 choice to 80-to-1, tied for the fifth-highest odds in the league.

“They’ve never paid much attention to the Falcons,” South Point oddsmaker Jimmy Vaccaro says. “Lately, it felt like the Falcons had a thing over there where they screwed it up at some point, whether that was after starting well or in the playoffs.”

This season, that collapse never came. Atlanta rode its offense—which scored 109 more points than any other team in football—into a new realm. The Falcons especially ignited after their Week 11 bye, winning seven of their final eight games while averaging 37.5 points.

It took that run for the betting public to notice. Vaccaro says South Point only attracted substantial volume on Atlanta to win the Super Bowl once the Falcons had built a 10-to-1 record heading into the playoffs. Atlanta’s 36-20 victory over Seattle—as 6.5-point favorites—in the divisional round proved to be one of the worst results of the 2016 postseason for MGM Resorts International. “They caught on to the Falcons,” MGM sports book director Jay Rood says. “It just wasn’t until late.”

On the other side, support for the Patriots arrived early. And perhaps no team contributed to a rare down year by sports books more than the Patriots.

New England sits at 15-3 against the spread, the best record going into a Super Bowl since its own 2003-2004 team had an identical mark versus the number before beating the Carolina Panthers, 32-29, in the finale. Bettors have largely stayed behind the Patriots since their first Super Bowl victory, in 2002, when they downed the Rams, 20-17, as 14-point underdogs—and have been rewarded for their loyalty.

Since taking the helm for the Patriots in 2000—quarterback Tom Brady’s rookie season—coach Bill Belichick is a remarkable 174-124-5 against the spread. “You keep making everyone bet a bad price, and soon enough it’s going to even out,” Vaccaro says. “It just hasn’t with them. It’s all Tom Brady and Bill Belichick. It’s very obvious that they’re unique by what they’ve done year after year.”

The Patriots have drawn a slim edge —54 percent of the money wagered on the Super Bowl—over the first week and a half at William Hill sports books. That near-the-middle split—plus the preponderance of proposition wagers, which have a higher hold percentage for the house—should help sports books bounce back from a rough year in the season’s final game. Sports books have profited from the Super Bowl 25 times in the 27 years since tracking began.

There’s also no liability in the futures. Lots of bettors took New England, but the Patriots never sat at high enough odds to be a danger to bookmakers. The Falcons did, but no one bet on them. “We’re certainly sitting in a good position in the futures,” Rood says. “It’s a good Super Bowl matchup in that regard.”

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Mirroring betting trends, the split of fans feels even as Super Bowl festivities get underway here in Houston. There’s an expectation that more New England fans will travel to the game, but Falcons’ jerseys might have outnumbered Patriots’ jerseys on Monday night.

The largest contingent of media flocks to Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan, the presumed NFL MVP, with the rows of cameras clinging to his riser noticeably deeper than those for Brady.

“It’s unlike anything I’ve ever been a part of,” Ryan says. “To see the number of people out here, the number of different media outlets, to have this opportunity, it’s special for all of us.”

Ryan chuckles at the surrounding madness—a man dressed in a Cinderella costume, and actor Kel Mitchell reprising his role as Ed from Good Burger. Brady, predictably, remains poker-faced as reporters climb ladders to ask about his supermodel wife Gisele Bündchen’s twin sister, generally ignoring the sideshow aspects all together. Brady says he’s enjoying the moment but is ready to settle into a routine.

Routine. Like the Patriots reaching the Super Bowl yet again. Clockwork.

Long gone are the memories of Brady’s second season, when the Patriots overcame 60-to-1 odds to win their first-ever Super Bowl. That team is often regarded as the longest shot to ever win the Super Bowl. The Falcons hope to change that.

Super Bowl 51 February 5, 3:30 p.m., Fox. Betting line: Patriots -3. Total: 59.

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