How to Bet Against the Spread in the NFL

How to Bet Against the Spread in the NFL

Learn how NFL spread betting works, including how to read NFL odds, differences between moneyline & totals bets, and strategies for the best NFL picks.

Among all the different types of bets you can make on the various sports around the world, spread betting on the NFL is the most popular with the betting public. It’s estimated that around $100 billion is wagered legally on the National Football League each season, and most of that is done with a point spread. Other bets include moneyline betting and wagering on the over-under.

When placing a wager with a point spread, the public is betting that a team will either win or lose by a certain amount of points. As we will explain below, this is in an effort to try to keep the amount of bets on each team roughly the same in order for sportsbooks to turn a profit.

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How to Bet an NFL Spread: Step By Step

  1.  Choose an NFL Game to Bet on. Every week of the NFL regular season there are generally at least 12 and up to 16 games to bet on. The regular season spans from early September to early January.
  2.  Analyze the Circumstances for Both Teams. We will get into factors like injuries, rivalries, and trends below, but this should all be considered before picking who to bet on.
  3.  Choose the Favorite or Underdog. Either team needs to cover the spread for you to win your bet. That means if the spread is 5.5, the favorite would need to win the game by at least 6 points for you to win your bet, and the underdog would need to win the game outright or come within 5 points of winning if you bet on them.
  4.  Choose Your Sportsbook and Place the Bet. Using a site like Sidelines gives you an advantage. The spread numbers and odds numbers are not uniform on every site, and with sidelines you’re able to see where you get the best edge on the bet you want to make. It could be that on one site the favorite is favored to win by 5 and on another site it’s 5.5. That half a point can be the difference between winning and losing your bet. Once you find your site, place your bet.
  5.  Watch the Game Live to Track Your Bet. The thrill of sports betting is being able to root for your bet in real time. It makes watching the game even more exciting!

How to Read NFL Betting Odds

When taking a look at the NFL odds set for a game, you will see the three listed above: spread, over-under, and moneyline. Taking the opening game of the 2021 season for an example, the Dallas Cowboys play at the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The Bucs are listed at -6 for the point spread, meaning that if you bet on Tampa Bay, they must win by more than six points for you to win the bet. Conversely, a bet on Dallas is +6, so you’re essentially getting six points to bet on the Cowboys. If they win the game or lose by less than six, you win the bet.

The over-under for this game is set at 53, which means you simply bet whether you think the combined point total of the game will be over or under 53. The moneyline means that you bet on which team you think is going to win, and instead of giving up or getting points to increase or decrease the odds of victory, the odds are factored into the amount you bet. So for this game, Tampa Bay is -275 to win, which means that you have to bet $275 in order to win $100. Dallas, on the other hand, is +225. When you see a plus before a moneyline bet, that indicates the amount you can win on a $100 bet, so a $100 bet on Dallas will get you $225 in winnings if they win the game.

Spread betting is the most popular because it’s an easier way for casual bettors to understand the odds being set through a point spread instead of a money line. The odds for most spread bets are -110, so it’s essentially an even-money bet. It also promotes more action on lopsided games. When a team is more than a 10-point favorite, they have very little chance of losing that game, so hardly any people would bet on the underdog, and the sportsbooks would be liable to lose lots of money. Upsets do happen, of course, but by evening the playing field so to speak, betting on that 10-point underdog to lose by less than 10 is a lot more acceptable than placing a wager on that underdog to win outright.

Who Are the Favorites and Underdogs in NFL Spread Betting?

As discussed above, a team with a minus before the spread number is the favorite. Tampa Bay at -6 means that the oddsmakers do not necessarily predict that the Bucs will win by six, but they believe putting the spread at -6 will garner an equal amount of betting for the Buccaneers and Cowboys. If both teams are listed at -110, that means you have to bet $110 to win $100 for each side. If the bets are split 50-50, the sportsbook uses the losing bets to pay the winners. You’ll notice that leaves $10 left over from each bet. That’s called the vigorish (aka the vig or the juice). This is essentially a service fee that the sportsbook takes for placing your bet and assuring that you will get paid if you win. Simply put, this is how the house makes money and why they are motivated to try to keep the number of bets on each side as even as possible.

Oddsmakers come up with point spreads through a process called handicapping. While there are several statistical factors that go into the spread that the oddsmakers come up with (quality of the teams, who is the home team, how the teams are playing recently, and any key injuries), there are also psychological factors as well. For the Week 1 game we described, the Dallas Cowboys are one of the NFL’s most popular teams. That means casual bettors (think tourists who go to Las Vegas once a year and make a few wagers for fun) will place more emotional bets on teams that they like. So, oddsmakers will work this bias into their point spread, meaning that a bet on Dallas may not offer good value in reality.

To figure this out, you can handicap games yourself. You can do the research yourself and see how the result compares to the spread the oddsmakers set. We will get into this in more detail below.

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What Are the Possible Results of NFL Point Spread Betting?

Before we get into detailed strategies, it’s important to go over the potential results of your point-spread bet. For our 2021 opening-game example we gave above, there are three possible results.

  1. If Tampa Bay wins by more than six points, bettors on the Bucs are victorious. If you bet on the Bucs at -6 and they win by just four, however, you lose the bet.
  2. Dallas can either win the game outright or lose by less than six for a bet on the Cowboys to be a winning one.
  3.  In the instance when the points spread is an even number, you can also tie (aka push) if Tampa Bay wins by six. If that’s the case, all bets on both teams at -6 or +6 would get their money back.

Elsewhere in Week 1, the Buffalo Bills are 5.5-point favorites over the visiting Pittsburgh Steelers. When you see a spread with a half-point in it, a push isn’t possible. If the Bills win by six or more, Buffalo will have covered the spread, and if they win by five or fewer points (or lose the game outright), the Steelers will have covered and bets on Pittsburgh are winners.

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NFL Spread-Betting Strategies

Given the immense popularity of NFL betting to the general public, there are a vast amount of resources online to handicap games yourself and help you try to find an edge. For example, after taking the below factors into account, you believe that the Buccaneers should win the Week 1 game against Dallas by 10 points, there’s four points worth of value in the point spread that oddsmakers set, so you should feel confident in placing a bet on the Buccaneers. Here are strategies and factors to take into account:

  1. Keep Up With Lineup Changes and Injuries: Injuries play a major part in the NFL, and teams are required to update their injury report at least three times before a game. Starting on the Thursday before a Sunday game, you can find out who didn’t practice that day and what their status is for the game, ranging from probable to doubtful. The injury report will also list who is out that week’s game. This information changes each day leading up to the game, so stay on top of it.
  1.  Track Teams’ Schedules: Individual outcomes week-by-week in the NFL usually don’t translate to the following game, but you want to look for trends that play out over the course of at least a few weeks and possibly the entire season. Certain teams may struggle to win or cover on the road, they may have a great recent history against an upcoming opponent, or teams may be hot or cold, winning or losing a few games in a row by double-digits. Trends in schedules and results are what you need to focus on.
  1.  Track the Line Movement: Injuries can affect a line, as oddsmakers are paying attention to the injury reports as well so people aren’t able to take advantage of an advantageous line in case of a major name appearing on the injury report. Lines also may change if the bets are too lopsided toward one team. Remember, oddsmakers want even betting on both sides, so if 75% of the public is betting on one team when a line is set Sunday night or Monday morning, it will be adjusted in order to try and get more action on the team with just 25% of the bets.
  2. Watch the Game Live and Make Decisions on the Spot: Many sportsbooks and online sites offer live in-game betting. You can follow these trends in real time along with other factors you may be able to see or feel by watching the game. Sometimes a team is unusually hot or cold, so identifying that early can be advantageous for you.
  3.  Read the Odds From Different Vendors: Favorites historically cover just over 50% of the time, so the margin between favorites covering or not is razor thin. By using a website like Sidelines, you can scan the bets from various online sportsbooks, and you are likely to find a site that will offer at least a half-point advantage on a bet, so shopping for the best odds is a worthwhile strategy.

How to Decide Where to Place a Bet

Expounding on that last point further, there are several benefits to maintaining a presence on multiple online sportsbooks. Not only will vendors offer slightly different odds that can play in your favor after handicapping the games you’re interested in, but nearly every site offers deals and promotions. These include deposit bonuses (especially for first-time players) and reward programs where you can accumulate points when making bets that can be converted into bonus dollars or other prizes. You also want to take into account the site’s withdrawal and technical support options, as both will speak to the vendor’s credibility.

Once you decide on the right vendors for you and have your handicapping strategy in place, it’s time to choose your NFL betting website.

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