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Here’s What Nerds Predict for Super Bowl 50

NFL: NFC Championship-Arizona Cardinals at Carolina PanthersNFL: NFC Championship-Arizona Cardinals at Carolina Panthers
Carolina QB Cam NewtonPhotograph by Reuters/USA Today Sports

L. Jon Wertheim, a writer at Sports Illustrated, and Sam Sommers, a psychology professor at Tufts, are the authors of This is Your Brain on Sports: The Science of Underdogs, the Value of Rivalry, and What We Can Learn from the T-Shirt Cannon

While generally siding with the Carolina Panthers, the NFL’s considerable chattering class is divided on the likely outcome for Super Bowl 50. True, Carolina comes to the game with a shiny 17-1 record this season, led by the presumptive MVP, quarterback Cam Newton. The Broncos, though, boast the league’s best defense and are surely galvanized to win for their 39-year-old quarterback, Peyton Manning, in what appears ever more likely to be his final NFL game.

We’ll let others divine the final score. But using behavioral economics and social psychology, we will make a few predictions about the game itself. As you watch — and perhaps wager on — what might be the highest-rated Super Bowl in history, bear in mind the following.

• The play-calling will be conventional:

NFL coaches are a conservative lot to begin with. They tend to punt—rather than go for it—on fourth down entirely too frequently. Several years ago, a Berkeley economist, David Romer, theorized that the play-calling of NFL teams shows “systematic and clear cut” departures from the decisions that would maximize their chances of winning. Based on data from more than 700 NFL games, Romer identified 1,068 fourth-down situations when, statistically speaking, the right call would have been to go for it. The teams punted 959 times. In other words, nearly 90% of the time, NFL coaches made the suboptimal choice.

This risk aversion is particularly pronounced during the Super Bowl, when every play is put under a microscope. Again, this mirrors human behavior more generally. When, say, investors are known to pore over financial statements, brokers are likely to make conventional stock picks—even if statistics suggest that riskier stock picks are the better choice.

When happens when risk backfires? We learned at last year’s Super Bowl. With his team 26 seconds and one yard away from a game-winning touchdown, Seattle’s offensive coordinator, Darrell Bevell, decided against handing the ball to Marshawn Lynch—one of the league’s great short-yardage running backs—and instead called for a passing play. The pass was intercepted by the New England Patriots, who held to win the game. The decision was roundly mocked — “The worst call in the history of football,” says Emmitt Smith, the NFL’s all-time leading rusher—severely damaging Bevell’s reputation. Lesson learned.

• The officials will avoid making controversial late-game calls:

Go back and watch some of the great plays in most sports—from the New York Giants’ “helmet catch” in Super Bowl XLII to Michael Jordan’s 1998 famous game-winning shot against the Utah Jazz—and you’ll notice that assorted penalties and infractions could have been called but were not. There’s even a phrase in the sports lexicon for this: swallowing the whistle.

This too is completely consistent with human behavior. We tend to view acts of omission as less harmful than acts of commission—even if the outcome is the same or worse. Psychologists have found that people view inaction as less causal, less blameworthy and less harmful than action, even when the outcomes are the same. Or even worse. Doctors themselves subscribe to this philosophy. The first principle imparted to all medical students: “Do no harm.” It’s not, pointedly, “Do some good.”

Our legal system draws a similar distinction, seldom assigning an affirmative duty to rescue. Submerge someone underwater and you’re in trouble. Stand idly while someone flails in the pool before drowning and—unless you’re the lifeguard or a doctor—you won’t be charged with breaching a duty to rescue. In business, we see the same omission bias. When are stockbrokers in bigger trouble? When they neglect to buy a winning stock and, say, miss getting in on the Google IPO? Or when they invest in a dog, buying shares of Lehman Brothers with your retirement nest egg? Naturally, they act accordingly.

Especially in the Super Bowl—relentlessly scrutinized as it is—officials, understandably, are reluctant to insinuate themselves. This isn’t altogether bad. As fans, we prefer to let athletes determine outcomes. But when you wonder why so few penalties are called late in the fourth quarter, recall the omission bias.

• Sentimental storylines will not determine the outcome:

Will Peyton Manning win what could be his final game, authoring the ultimate ending to his career? Will Denver wide receiver Demaryius Thomas thrive in front of his mother, who was only recently released from prison? Will Cam Newton complete his redemption tour, finally laying to rest the tired talk about his capacity for leadership? The answers: maybe. But beware the cause-and-effect relationship. Humans—including athletes—are more resilient than we often think, able to go about their jobs without distracting emotional components. In the sports vernacular we “compartmentalize.” The same way studies show that, hours after trauma and elation (lows and highs), our equilibrium returns and we are able to resume our routines, we often overestimate the role that “Win one for The Gipper” emotion plays in performance.

• Crowd support could make a difference:

For all the myths in sports that can be unpacked, for all the conventional wisdom that is unwise, here’s a truism that’s true: the home team wins more often than not. This is the case across sports. This has been the case for decades. In 49 out of the 50 regular NFL seasons, home teams won more than half the games played. (In only one anomalous year, 1968, did home teams win less than half the games, but that was because there were five ties that season; remove those five tied games, and the home field advantage would have been 51%.)

The absence of the San Francisco 49ers and Oakland Raiders means that, technically, this Super Bowl will be played on a “neutral” field. But that doesn’t mean fan support is evenly split. A decade ago, the Pittsburgh Steelers faced the Seattle Seahawks in Super Bowl XL. The game was held in Detroit, a five-hour drive from Pittsburgh; a considerably further distance from the Pacific Northwest.

With demonstrably more rabid fans in the stands, the Pittsburgh players were, perhaps, bolstered by the support. But we think the real difference—and, indeed the real cause of home advantage in all of sports—is the effect of those partisans on the officiating. Pittsburgh was cited for three penalties totaling 20 yards; Seattle was cited for seven penalties (several of them highly controversial) and docked 70 yards.

Once again, this stands to reason. Psychology finds that social influence is a powerful force that can affect human behavior and decisions, without subjects themselves even being aware of it. Psychologists call this influence “conformity” because it causes the subject’s opinion to conform to a group’s opinion. Officials are asked to make split-second decisions. One decision will earn them the approval of a large group. The other choice will earn them disapproval. Here in the Bay Area this week, it was hard not to notice that Denver fans outnumbered Carolina fans, easily 5:1. Just something to think about….