When it comes to betting on NFL games, the point spread is at the top of the list.
There are plenty of ways to find action on a game: moneyline, props and totals to name a few. However, the majority of weekly chatter revolves around who may or may not cover the spread.
For new sports bettors, the game line can look like a foreign concept.
When new to NFL betting, an NFL point spread can seem like a random number pulled out of a hat without any rhyme or reason.
The reality is vastly different.
NFL point spreads make plenty of sense once you understand how they work. In fact, many point spread bets are closely tied to the actual final scores of the games so it can be tricky to solve for them successfully.
This may make handicapping the spread sound like a challenging task. It can be, but there’s also an attainable comfort level with a little practice and education.
The information on this page will help cut down the learning curve. Let’s begin by taking a look at exactly what is a point spread.
What is an NFL point spread?
For each NFL game, oddsmakers will designate a favorite and an underdog.
This reflects in the odds for a standard moneyline wager. A negative number will represent the side that is presumed to be the stronger team and expected to win as a result.
The underdog, or the team expected to lose the contest, will often have the positive number attached.
The 2019 NFL season opens with the first Thursday night football game schedule for the Green Bay Packers and Chicago Bears.
Here are the current moneyline odds for that game:
- Packers +150
- Bears -170
The Bears enter the game off of a playoff season, and they’ll be at home to boot. The Packers struggled last year and missed the postseason. As the oddsmakers see it, Chicago is the likely winner of this contest.
In addition, the point spread attaches a new wrinkle to the equation.
In addition to the moneyline odds, oddsmakers will also designate a point spread for each game. The idea of the point spread is to demonstrate the presumed gap between the two teams, which may or may not be reflected in the final score.
For handicappers, this means they have to solve for the point spread in addition to deciding who they think will win or lose the game.
Points spread for Packers vs. Bears
Let’s take a look at the point spread for the Packers and Bears game, along with the odds attached:
- Packers +3.5 (-110)
- Bears -3.5 (-110)
The Bears are favored by 3.5 points. That means, for a successful wager on the Bears with the point spread, they’ll need to win the game by 4 points or more.
If you want to bet on the underdog, the Packers can lose the game, but you can still win your bet, as long as they keep the margin of victory less than 3.5 points.
As you can see, both sides of the bet carry odds of -110. This is standard for NFL point spread bets, but you will see variances of a few points in either direction from time to time.
In monetary terms, odds of -110 mean that for every $100 wagered, the total return for a winning bet will be $190.90.
Sportsbooks will keep a certain amount of vigorish, or juice, on each bet.
On odds of -110, it’s 9.1%, which means the profit potential is 90.9 on successful wagers. Naturally, the return changes based on the odds, so be sure to factor that into the equation as part of your handicapping strategy.
On the majority of books, you can enter a bet type and amount to see the potential return. In addition, plenty of free handicapping calculators are available online that allow you to see how the odds translate into returns based on the amount staked.
Examples of football point spreads
Many football point spreads will revolve around some key numbers: 3, 7 and 10.
The reason is quite simple. A field goal is worth 3 points, while a touchdown and successful extra point attempt are worth 7 points.
The margin of victory in football games is 3-7 points quite often, as a result. When you add those two scoring events together, the margin becomes 10 points.
It’s not uncommon to see a 3-point spread be in the range of 2.5-3.5 points. For 7-point spreads, you may see lines between 6.5-7.5 points. While those half-point differences may not sound like a whole lot, they can add up when handicapping games.
Many seasoned handicappers will line shop throughout the week in a bid to find the most appealing number. We’ll cover that more in-depth in the next section.
For now, just know that the line you see on one book could be slightly different elsewhere.
Points Spread for Buffalo Bills vs. New York Jets
As an example, let’s take a look at another game from Week 1 of the regular season. The Buffalo Bills will be on the road to take on the New York Jets.
Here’s how the oddsmakers see that contest:
- Bills +3 (-110)
- Jets -3 (-110)
This game is right on a key number. For handicapping purposes, one rule of thumb is to assume that the home team has a built-in 3-point advantage. In this case, the Jets are favored by 3 points. In terms of the matchup, that means the game is close to being a toss-up.
Here’s another Week 1 line that isn’t quite as close from a spread perspective:
- Washington Redskins +8.5 (-110)
- Philadelphia Eagles -8.5 (-110)
A spread of 8.5 points is a little on the hefty side. The oddsmakers are telling us that the Eagles project to be significantly better than the Redskins.
As handicappers, we have to decide which side can cover the spread.
Do we like the Eagles to win by a wide margin? If so, we like them minus the points. Do we think the Redskins can keep it a little closer than expected? Then we can take them plus the points on our betting tickets.
As with many aspects of handicapping, point spreads are one of those things that seem quite complex at first glance. After gaining some familiarity and practicing a few times, you’ll find that they are a lot easier to understand.
NFL point spread odds & line moves
The game line can be different from one sportsbook to another.
In addition, there can be some line movement as the week progresses. For these reasons, it’s always a good idea to keep an eye on the lines and odds to spot differences.
One book could have a game line of -3 posted, while another could be at -3.5. Besides, market action can move the lines by a half-point or more. That’s precisely what has happened with the game between the Bills and the Jets.
When the opening lines were released, the Jets were a 3.5-point favorite at most books. Wagers have been coming in for a while on Week 1 games and the line has shifted, so the Jets are now favored by only 3 points.
There has been an even more dramatic move in other games on the Week 1 schedule.
Points spread for Kansas City Chiefs vs. Jacksonville Jaguars
For example, here was the opening line for the game between the Kansas City Chiefs and Jacksonville Jaguars:
- Chiefs -5.5 (-110)
- Jaguars +5.5 (-110)
Here’s where the line for that same game stands today:
- Chiefs -4 (-110)
- Jaguars +4 (-110)
This line has moved by 1.5 points in favor of the Jaguars, which is a pretty significant shift. To read between the lines, a good amount of money must be flowing in that direction.
How do we know that? When the line shifts dramatically toward one team, we can take that as a sign that oddsmakers are moving the number to find more balance in the action.
Sportsbooks do not like being too lopsided on any individual games so that the lines will shift accordingly based on market action. That’s an additional benefit of line and odds shopping, as it helps you to gain a better sense of public sentiment on the games at hand.
As a final note, keep an eye on the odds attached to the point spreads as well. While -110 is standard, there are situations where the number can shift in either direction. Those few points of difference may not seem like much, but they can add up over a week and season.
How to handicap NFL point spreads
Handicapping for NFL point spreads can be as simple or complex as you would like it to be.
That’s one of the beauties of sports betting, in general: your involvement level can vary based on factors which are most important to you, such as time and money.
If you’re pressed for time, you may want to consider consulting a few trusted sources for advice. These can range from free sites that offer betting advice to subscription services that provide picks for you.
For those who prefer to do it themselves, there are plenty of ways to do that as well. If you’re new to sports betting, the best approach can be to start small and work your way out. Trying to absorb everything all at once can be overwhelming, and confusion can reign as a result.
Focus on key factors
To start, focus on a few key factors, such as the overall strength of each team.
Numerous free power rankings are out there, many of which will attempt to quantify the perceived strength of a team into a numerical value. When starting, these numbers can seem confusing, but they will prove to be an invaluable resource as you attempt to beat the spread.
On the statistical front, it’s easy to get lost in all of the various stats.
Instead, focus on the bottom line numbers such as average points scored per game and points allowed, as well as for and against yardage. These stats will help you spot the strong offensive teams and weak defensive teams immediately, as well as the clubs that are in the middle on both fronts.
After you have a good handle on that, you can begin to add other factors into your handicapping.
For example, turnover margins are useful to look at, as for and against sacks. Teams that turn the ball over a lot can often lose, while those who see a lot of good bounces are more fortunate. For sacks, pressure for and against can have a significant impact on the game.
As you continue to build out your handicapping process, you will find stats that are quite important in the equation, as well as plenty that don’t tell all that much. The best advice on this front is that experience will help you be able to find the key signals among all the noise.
The bottom line on NFL point spreads
Betting on point spreads is a popular selection on the wagering menu.
They help to point out the perceived difference between two teams quickly. As handicappers, we need to solve this difference for each game we wish to wager.
Point spread betting can be complex at times, but it also doesn’t have to be downright intimidating. The more experience you gain, the more comfortable you will become with what the numbers are saying.
The ultimate goal is cashing tickets, so focus on finding what works best for you. No two approaches are exactly alike, but many can lead to the same final destination.