The NFL has been the most hypocritical professional sports league in the United States for many years. The league constantly railed against legalizing gambling across the country even though the reason the NFL became so popular was because of gambling, whether legally in Nevada or offshore. Why do you think the league has been putting out injury reports for years? For the other team’s knowledge? Uh, no. For gamblers.
In fact, one could argue that gambling never becomes legalized outside of Nevada without the incredible popularity of fantasy football. That led to the popularization of sites like FanDuel, which basically led to legalized betting. No league in the USA comes close to the NFL in terms of overall betting action. A good NFL regular-season matchup generally takes more action than a playoff game in the NBA, NHL or Major League Baseball. And the Super Bowl is the most-wagered single-day event in America – the World Cup final takes more worldwide and the NCAA Tournament takes more overall action but that’s spread over three-plus weeks.
Here’s a simple cheat sheet for betting on the NFL.
Types of Bets
Generally speaking, the three ways to bet an NFL game are on the moneyline, point spread or over/under total.
Let’s say the New England Patriots are facing the Dallas Cowboys – those are the two most popular teams in the league as of this writing (the Cowboys always are) and easily take the most action of any teams. Fans either love to back or bet against the Patriots or Cowboys. There’s no in between.
If two teams in the NFL are equal, the home team is usually given an edge of 2.5-3 points – that’s what playing in front of a boisterous home crowd and in a stadium, players are used to is worth. If two teams that were equal were playing at a neutral site like in the Super Bowl or in London or Mexico City, the game could be a pick’em, meaning there’s no point spread.
In this situation, let’s say the Cowboys are 7.5-point home favorites. That means Dallas essentially starts the game with a 7.5-0 lead over the Patriots. Cowboys backers to cash on the spread would need Dallas to win by at least eight points. Patriots backers only need New England to lose by less than eight. The magic numbers in an NFL game are 3 and 7 so sportsbooks often hang that half-point on those so there are no ties, which are called pushes and bets are returned. No one likes a push.
Looking at the same Patriots-Cowboys scenario and using our odds conversion chart, the Cowboys would be around -450 on the moneyline and the Patriots approximately +330. When you bet the moneyline, the final score is irrelevant – it only matters which team wins. One would have to bet $450 on Dallas to return $100 for a Cowboys victory, while a $100 bet on the Patriots returns +330. The larger the spread in a game, the greater discrepancy on the moneyline.
Finally, the over/under total is simply that: Total points scored in a game. One bets either over or under that total, which is usually set between the high 30s and low 60s depending on the teams involved. Two bad offensive clubs might see a number at 39. Two stellar offensive teams could have 62. Totals also often have half-points attached to avoid a push. Totals are bet via the moneyline, but often the over and under are the same -110 price. There are games where either over or under might be favored but it’s generally not by too much.
Nothing is more important in betting the NFL than knowing the status of a team’s starting quarterback. If a QB is questionable due to injury early in a week, sportsbooks will not place a spread, moneyline or total on the game until his status is clear. Nothing changes those numbers like a quarterback. A spread would move more than a touchdown, for example, were Patriots star quarterback Tom Brady or Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers ruled out of a game.
If some lesser quarterback such as Chicago’s Mitchell Trubisky is ruled out of a game, then the spread/moneyline/total wouldn’t move so dramatically. There are other players on teams that can affect those numbers, a star running back or receiver or a few defensive players. But quarterbacks are the key.
Many teams in the NFL either play in warm-weather climates or domed stadiums, but weather absolutely will affect the numbers on a game. Rain or snow or heavy wind generally pushes the total down and tends to even the playing field a bit for the underdog. Teams in the Northeast and Midwest have to play in wintry conditions later in the season and it’s simply harder to score in the cold and snow. Kickers are more apt to miss a point-after try or field-goal attempt.
There’s no guaranteed betting strategy for winning wagers on the NFL, but home underdogs are generally a wise bet, especially if getting that extra half-point at 3.5 or 7.5. Also, teams on a short week – after playing on Monday Night Football, for example, -- are often smart to bet against.
Of course, there are hundreds of options for every NFL game – thousands when it gets to the playoffs and Super Bowl. Spread options are available for each quarter. Dallas might be -2.5 for the first quarter against New England from the example above. Total bets for each quarter are also available. First-half and second-half lines are popular.
Live betting is exploding at sportsbooks where bettors can wager what happens on a given play or series, etc. Pre-game bets on how many yards Ezekiel Elliott rushes for or how many touchdown passes Tom Brady throws.
Futures bets are those placed well in advance. You can bet on who wins the following season’s Super Bowl before the previous year’s ends. Who wins the NFC East? Who wins NFL MVP, Rookie of the Year? Who is first head coach fired? Over/under win totals for each team in a given season. The options are nearly limitless.
Spreads in the NFL generally range from pick’em to the high teens. There have been a handful of times one club has been a 20-plus point favorite over another. The NFL record came late in the 1976 season when the Pittsburgh Steelers were 27-point home favorites over the winless and expansion Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The Steelers covered in a 42-0 rout.
The biggest Super Bowl spread ever was also arguably the biggest upset in league history. In Super Bowl III, the Baltimore Colts of Johnny Unitas were 18-point favorites over the AFL’s New York Jets, who were led by Joe Namath. Of course, before the game, Namath guaranteed a victory and he became a legend in leading the 16-7 upset. That changed American football forever because then the NFL and AFL merged. Had the Colts routed the Jets, perhaps that never occurs