Sep 15, 2022
Sep 15, 2022

How to bet on the NFL: The ultimate NFL betting guide

Learn how to bet on the NFL and what the odds mean

Understand the different NFL betting markets

What strategies can you use to inform your NFL betting?

How to bet on the NFL: The ultimate NFL betting guide

NFL is becoming increasingly popular around the world. Not only are games now played in the UK, but even more regions across the globe are getting in on the action. The popularity of NFL betting will only continue to rise over the next few years. Read on for a comprehensive guide to NFL betting.

The NFL has consistently built on its International Series over the past few years, and this season, the UK will host a minimum of three overseas games. Whilst games in UK only make up a fraction of regular season fixtures, football fans can still watch the NFL all year round, so with more and more fans watching, this is the perfect time to learn about NFL betting.

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NFL betting: Available markets

There are three basic bet types in NFL betting: Money Line, Handicap, and Totals - the same as basketball betting.

Money Line

The Money Line (1X2 without the draw) is commonly used amongst novice bettors because it is simple and straightforward - it is essentially betting on who will win the game.

Handicap

Opposing NFL teams vary in strength, so in order to counter the perceived bias in abilities, bookmakers offer a points handicap to level the playing field - this is often referred to as “the spread”. 

Experienced bettors will most likely think about things like how the weather can impact the result or whether a team is playing at home or on the road.

The Handicap market is popular with more advanced bettors as it balances each team’s chances and offers more value - it is used as the standard reference point for referring to relative chances in a game.

By using a hypothetical example, we can explain how betting on the Handicap market works. Both teams are offered associated odds on either a plus or minus points score, so for example the Indianapolis Colts might be offered at -6 1.909 against the New York Giants at +6 2.020.

A bet on Indianapolis would win if the Colts win by six or more points, and similarly a bet on the Giants would have paid if they win the game, or lose by less than six points.

If the result was 29-17 to the Colts, those bettors who bet on the Colts to win -6 1.909 would have a winning bet as the points difference is 12. Six more than the handicap offered.

Totals

Totals betting focuses on how many combined points will be scored by both teams during the game. Bookmakers offer an option to bet on whether or not the total points will be either over or under the totals mark. This is why this form of betting is often referred to as the Over/Under.

In both the Handicap and Totals markets, when a team exceeds the required points for a successful bet, it is called ‘covering the bet’.

Derivative NFL betting markets

In addition to the more common betting markets, NFL bettors can also bet on time-specific markets within a game (e.g. first quarter, first and second half), adjusted Handicap markets (alternative Handicap), and individual Team Totals. These markets are merely variations of the basic bet types mentioned above and work in the same way.

Outright NFL betting is also an option for bettors. These bets will usually run over a longer period of time and often span across an entire season. Examples of Outright markets in NFL betting include Season Win Totals for individual teams, Division Winners, Super Bowl Outright Winner, and the Super Bowl MVP (most valuable player).

Because the Super Bowl is such a big occasion in terms of NFL betting, there are often special markets posted for the event - these include the Scorer Of The First Touchdown and Winner Of The Super Bowl Coin Toss.

Developing an NFL betting strategy

Once you have mastered the basics of NFL betting, you may want to explore some more advanced strategies that help determine an edge-based betting approach. Bettors looking to bet on the NFL Handicap markets must take into consideration a number of factors about the game that help predict the chances of team X beating team Y.

For example, in Handicap betting, an experienced bettor will most likely think about how the odds are initially calculated and how other factors impact the result, such as the weather and home-field advantage. 

Professional NFL bettors build power ranking systems to evaluate teams’ relative strengths and calculate who will have the advantage in any given game. This is then measured against the odds offered by bookmakers – with bettors looking for discrepancies that represent expected value between the two numbers.

Collating reliable information is an integral part of any successful betting strategy. However, for those bettors new to NFL betting, there are some accessible handicapping systems that can produce accurate results without the need to build a sophisticated model.

Power Ratings

The core of any evaluation process is producing power ratings for all teams in a league. This can be as simple as calculating average offensive yards gained per play and the average defensive yards allowed per play for every team and comparing the two teams playing that day. 

Numerous websites also offer their own ratings systems for every team. Developing an understanding of which ones to trust and rely on to gauge upcoming matchups is an good starting point for new bettors. This also provides a good opportunity to compare multiple sources of information and build your own intuition based on which source is strong or weak. 

More advanced power ratings produced by ELO, Massey, Colley, or Markov provide a single number that best describes team strength comparisons. Some of the approaches even allow the incorporation of Handicaps and Totals to build market-implied power ratings that reverse-engineer a sportsbook's line. An example of this can be found below with the number next to the team name being what the market expectation is for the team against an average team on a neutral field.

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Based on these power ratings, Tampa Bay has a 4.38 handicap above an average team. With Dallas at 1.35 handicap points above an average team. 

Constructing these power rankings allows a bettor to compare what the market expectation should be on a neutral field versus what it actually is. An example using 2022 Week 1 Handicap market odds from Pinnacle shows the Sunday night matchup for the Buccaneers traveling to Dallas to take on the Cowboys as a +1 handicap for the home team.

4.38 - 1.35 indicates a handicap of around +3 and after folding in one to two points for home-field advantage, we arrive close to the handicap that Pinnacle is offering on this matchup. Doing this for every game is a way to find value on some Handicap markets which are off kilter with the current market expectation. This is also a great way to find value if home-field advantage is over or understated in certain matchups. 

Once accurate power ratings are obtained, the next step is to understand the outside influences that may be driving discrepancies between the power ratings and current betting market numbers. 

Home-field advantage

NFL operates in a unique ‘closed’ league system, where relegation and promotion do not occur. Therefore, from a statistical point of view, the data from successive seasons for such factors as home-field advantage (HFA) is robust.

The impact of HFA changed dramatically through the COVID-affected seasons and isn’t as pronounced as previously thought. HFA also doesn’t seem to fully operate in a linear fashion with a defined correct mean number across 32 different stadiums. Sometimes when the handicap produced from our power ratings is off from the current betting market offering it can sometimes be because of too-aggressive pricing based on a perceived HFA. This has started to create opportunities for road teams performing above expectation at the NFL level. 

In 2020, home-field advantage worked out to a little over .75 handicap points, but dropped dramatically in 2021 to only being worth .11. Bookmakers have adjusted slightly and seem to be baking in a negligible amount of HFA of .5. Depending on your personal beliefs on the impact of HFA, this creates an opportunity to either buy into or fade teams playing at home. It also creates opportunities for certain teams that may be impacted by HFA more than others.

Key NFL betting numbers

In terms of the handicap in NFL betting, there are a few key numbers that bettors should be aware of. By understanding what the key numbers are, you can avoid betting on a bad Handicap market and can even work out which team the bookmaker wants you to bet on. 

Similarly to the Run Line in
baseball betting, most games in the NFL are decided by specific margins. Three is the most common margin of victory in the NFL as most games are decided late on by a field goal (three points), while seven is the second most common winning margin, as this is how many points a team is awarded for a touchdown plus an extra point for a successful conversion.

It is estimated that around 30% of NFL games are decided by three or seven points. This means that -2.5, +3.5, -6.5 and +7.5 are perhaps the most important numbers when it comes to betting on the Handicap market in the NFL. Sharp bettors will often wait for the handicap figure to fall to around this mark before placing the bet they want to make.

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Other bet types

After newer bettors become accustomed to betting Handicap, Money Line, and Total markets, the next evolution typically involves betting on Multiples and Teasers. These bet forms can offer unique opportunities, but an initial understanding of how they work and how to approach them is needed if you hope to enjoy sports betting as a potential profitable hobby.

What is a Multiple

Multiples are the lottery tickets of sports betting. They are the only way to turn a small amount of money risked into an outsized return. Multiples often get a bad rap, as these bets always build in an extremely high hold percentage for bookmakers.

This leads to the most straightforward recommendation for new or novice bettors to stay away and stick only to straight bets. The complicated math requirements increase the opportunity for bookmakers to finish in the black. And we have seen this play out in state reports for sports betting, as Multiple bets consistently perform as the highest percentage of revenue generator compared to hold for sportsbooks. 

However, simply avoiding these types of bets all together leaves opportunities on the table. Let’s go through the different forms of bets that sportsbooks offer and try to find some plays that could be considered +EV bets. 

Multiples 101

A Multiple combines several bets into one. It does this by rolling over the winnings from each individual bet into the next leg of the bet. Each leg or individual bet in the Multiple must win for the Multiple to be graded as a winner.

As an example, let’s look at the regular season kick-off game between the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Dallas Cowboys. The Buccaneers were listed as the 7.5-point favorites with the Total set at 50.5. All sides on these two bets have a price of 1.910* listed. 

If a bettor wanted to place a bet on both the Handicap and the Total, risking $100, they could simply take $50 and bet on the Bucs -7.5, then take the other $50 and take the under 50.5. When both bets win, the bettor walks away with a profit of $90.90.

The other option is to transform both of these bets into a Multiple. Both legs must now win for this bet to payout, but if they do win, the bettor would net $264. This sets up a framework where we know the exact payout on 1.910* legs of a multiple based on how many bet legs are included. 

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The immediate takeaway is that the actual odds are higher in every circumstance than the sportsbooks payout. This is the vig factored in and where bookmakers earn their profit. The key to Multiples, like Singles bets, is finding +EV situations to capitalise on. 

One other Multiple issue is the inclusion of the Money Line, or if the price on any particular bet isn’t 1.910*. The payout can easily be calculated in these scenarios as well, so let’s walk through how to do it using another example.  Let’s set our sights on a three-leg Money Line Multiple for Week 1 with the Jaguars at 1.670*, Washington at 2.050*, and the Seahawks at 1.740*. Your stake on this Multiple is $100.

To calculate, simply pick any of the three legs to start, as the order doesn’t matter. Starting with Washington at 2.050* figure out what the bet would profit with this pick ($105). That brings your total to $205. Now take that and calculate what a winning bet on the Jaguars at 1.670* would be. Take your new total and figure out what you would win on the final bet, which is the Seahawks at 1.740*. Our final payout here would be $494.00. 

Typically rolling over bets instead of placing a Multiple offers a higher payout, but the problem is you cannot do this with multiple games that start at the same time. If the legs you identify all start at different times, then in almost every situation it is better to roll over your Single bets. 

Correlated Multiples

Outside of seeking out +EV straight up bets to Multiple, there is one other scenario where Multiples aren’t like lighting money on fire, the often discussed but rarely found Correlated Multiple.

In layman’s terms, a Correlated Multiple is a bet where the two (or more) legs are correlated or tied together. If one leg wins then the chances increase that the second leg will also win. A simplified example, that no sportsbook will ever accept, would be if a bettor could create a Multiple based on a  team’s chances of winning the Conference Championship and Super Bowl together. The secret is to increase the chances of the second leg winning if the first leg ends with a favorable outcome. 

Thankfully there are other less obvious examples that sportsbooks occasionally miss or simply think don’t matter enough to block bettors from creating a Multiple with.  

In 1,111 of those games, there has been a closing spread with a favourite of a touchdown or greater. 

An often discussed idea is if a big underdog covers, the game typically falls short of the Total. Since books allow bettors to have Handicap and Totals in a Multiple, the thought is if someone identifies a big underdog as likely to cover, they can increase their profitability by including the Under and placing a Multiple with both bets together. 

In the NFL, there have been 3,584 regular season games from 2007-2020. 580 games (52.2%) have seen the underdog cover and when the underdog covers, 51.4% of those games go below the Total. It isn’t much, but it is a slightly above average breakeven proposition, so when using Greenline to identify the right games, the odds will be even better than both outcomes of the Multiple hit. There are numerous other examples that we will dive into throughout the season, but for now let’s turn our attention to a new offering that is becoming increasingly popular across major sportsbooks. 

Same Game Multiples

Regulated sports betting has forced bookmakers to become more creative with their offerings. One of the most popular new options is Same Game Multiples. They allow bettors to place Multiples on correlated events that aren’t allowed at your grandparents’ sportsbook. The big catch is that the odds adjust based on the correlation of bets included in the Multiple. Basically, the odds given aren’t reflective of uncorrelated outcomes at 1.910* odds like traditional Multiples are. There is a reduction in the odds given based on the bookmakers’ calculation for how likely the events are to happen together. 

As an example, we can take two events that everyone intuitively knows are correlated together. The Eagles are the +3.5 point underdogs on the road in Atlanta for Week 1. The first-half Money Line has the Eagles at 2.650*. A normal two-leg Multiple with one leg at 1.910* and a Money Line at 2.650* has a payout of $408.94 on a $100 bet. In a Same Game Multiple, because of the correlated outcome, it has a odds of 2.840*. The change in breakeven percentage based on those two payouts is 15.5%, which is a massive change for any event in sports betting. 

The question with Same Game Multiples becomes if the reduction in payout removes all of the correlation between the two events. If it doesn’t then it could be considered a positive expected value bet based on the payout. It’s safe to say, though, that bookmakers have shaded the odds heavily in their direction. Although there might be a couple soft spots, the majority of Same Game Multiples don’t have a positive value expectation. We will explore a couple of potentially valuable spots in future articles, but for now, let’s turn our attention to one of the best overall betting strategies that has become publicly available knowledge in the past decade. 

Teasers

An NFL Teaser bet is similar to a Multiple in that you add several legs that must all win for the bet to pay out. The key difference from Multiples is that a Teaser allows you to shift the lines 6, 6.5 or 7 points in a direction that lowers your risk. This offering comes with a reduction in payout, which is why the bookmakers allow the shift in lines to occur.

Serious sports bettors have used Teasers based on an idea first presented in Stanford Wong’s revolutionary book, Sharp Sports Bettor. The wrong Teaser was created with the basic strategy being that crossing key numbers in a sport like football allows the odds to shift dramatically enough to where a Teaser becomes a profitable betting strategy. Unlike other sports, football scoring occurs in bunches of three or seven. For this reason we see a majority of bets land on those two numbers, and the idea of key numbers is born. 

Using historical data, we can derive how likely an NFL football game is expected to land on each number. 

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23% of games land on either three or seven, and the most valuable numbers outside of these two can almost all be found within their range. This means that anytime you can cross both three and seven with several Teaser legs you are sitting close to, if not on, a positive expected value bet. 

This has become such a valuable phenomenon in sports betting that bookmakers are starting to shift how they price lines to avoid giving games Teaser potential. It is also one reason why we see so much line movement in between threes for a game, with a bookmaker having to juggle not only finding the correct line, but also the number that won’t be pounded by those looking for the best Teaser opportunity.

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