NFL Point Spread Strategy

The origins of the point spread wagering strategy date back to the 1940s. Charles K. McNeil, a mathematician from Chicago first invented the point spread as a recreational gambler. He left his job teaching math at a local high school to open a bookmaking operation during this time. The NFL’s wasn’t too popular in the mid-1940s after the conclusion of the 2nd World War, but the league had origins dating back to the 1920s.

NFL point spread betting was available at the time thanks to McNeil’s innovation in betting markets. At this time, players often made more working during the season or offseason than they did playing professional football. Suffice to say, we’ve come a long way since the early days of professional football. Today, the minimum salary for players is $435,000, and the NFL points spread betting is the most widely bet market for US sports bettors when betting on NFL games.

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What Is A Point Spread?

The general motivation behind point spread betting strategy is to create an active betting market on both sides of a wager. When two teams face off, one is going to go to be better than the other. This might be a small margin or quite a large margin, depending on the talent on each side.

NFL Point Spreads and Final Scores

Without a point spread (or other odds, such as moneylines) it would be quite easy for bettors to profit by simply taking the favorite. Few would have any reason to wager on the underdog, particularly in situations where there is a clear advantage on one side. There would be no way to balance action, even with added vigorish or commission charged by the sportsbooks, and the bookmaking industry as we know it today wouldn’t exist. The point spread essentially levels the field for the underdog. It allows sportsbooks to establish a market between the favorite and the underdog, one that they can adjust based on betting action.

NFL Point Spread Strategy Example

The example is one we might see listed at sportsbooks when we view the NFL odds market. In NFL football games, there is a favorite and an underdog.

  • Cleveland Browns +5.5 (-110)
  • Pittsburgh Steelers -5.5 (-110)

The favorite is designated with a minus (-) value and the underdog with a (+) value. At US-facing sportsbooks, the home team is also always listed at the bottom of the market. In our above example, the visiting Cleveland Browns are facing the Pittsburgh Steelers at home. The Browns at +5.5 underdogs and the Steelers are -5.5 favorites. The attached (-110) is the betting odds one must lay to bet each side.

For our example, these odds are both the standard -110, which is the default vig charged by sportsbooks on straight wagers. The point spread, while simple to understand, can seem daunting to people who have never bet sports. Instead of winning or losing, teams must either cover the spread. Winning or losing isn’t relevant when grading point spreads, the only thing that matters is the margin of victory.

Favorite vs. Underdog

The Steelers are favored by -5.5 points, so if we have a bet on Pittsburgh, they need to win the game by 5.5 or more points for us to win our wager. If they win the game but by less than 5.5 points, our bet would be graded as a loss. The Browns are +5.5 underdogs. The requirement of the underdog in point spread betting markets is not to win the game outright, but to cover the spread. If they happen to win the game, we win our wager, but for this contest, the Browns only need to lose by less than 5.5 points.

Final Score Difference

For instance, if Pittsburgh wins the game 24-20, Steelers’ backers would lose their bet because they failed to cover the -5.5 point spread. Those who bet on the Browns would win their bet, despite Cleveland’s defeat, because they covered the +5.5 by a half-point. The Steelers may have won the game straight up, but they failed to cover against the spread.

If the final score were instead 27-20 for Pittsburgh, those who bet the Steelers -5.5 would walk away as winners. They won the game by 7 points, covering the spread by an extra 1.5 points. If this is still confusing, we can utilize simple addition and subtraction to figure out if our bet on a favorite or underdog is covering the point spread.

NFL Points Spread Betting Strategy Simplified

Anytime we’ve bet on the favorite, we can subtract the point spread from the favorite’s total points to determine their point total in relation to the betting line. For instance, if the Steelers have 20 points, we can subtract -5.5 points and determine their threshold for covering the spread.

  • 20-5.5 = 14.5

If the Steelers have 20 points and are favored by -5.5, their opponents can’t score more than 14 points or Pittsburgh won’t cover the point spread. We can use the same math regardless of the favorite’s point total to get this number. The same can be done for the underdog Browns. If Cleveland has 10 points and they are +5.5 underdogs, we add points to their total instead of subtracting.

  • 10+5.5 = 15.5

If Cleveland has 10 points, their opponents can’t score more than 15 points or Browns’ backers will lose their wager. When we are betting statistics, we’ll often see how a team has performed straight up (SU) and how they have performed against the spread (ATS). Straight up calculates the team’s traditional wins or losses, meaning if the team has won outright and against the spread is their record against the oddsmaker’s line.

Pushing a Bet In Point Spread Betting

Pushing a Bet In Point Spread BettingIn the above example, we used a point spread of 5.5. When there is a half-point involved with the point spread, known as a “hook” in betting slang, pushes are not possible. However, when there is no half point, a push is possible. A push occurs when there is a tie between the bettor and sportsbook where the final score is identical to the point spread.

If we change our above example to a 5 point spread, and Pittsburgh won the game 22-17, the outcome would be a push for both bettors who took Cleveland or Pittsburgh due to the five-point difference in the final score. In the case of a push, all bets are returned to bettor’s accounts, including the juice or vigorish. It’s as if the bet never happened and both sides are refunded their stakes.

Attached NFL Odds

All point spreads will have attached NFL money line odds. The standard odds for point spread betting is -110. These will usually be listed beside each point spread in parenthesis, as in our above example. If there are no odds listed, you can assume that the odds are -110 unless stated otherwise. We touch on attached odds in with point spreads in our NFL betting guide, but it’s worth going into this subject a little further.

When bettors log into their sportsbook account, there’s never going to be a scenario where all NFL sides will be listed at -110. The attached moneyline odds will change depending on the betting market. The point spread may move as well, but when a sportsbook doesn’t want to move off a particular number, another option is moving the attached money line odds. This is usually most common on numbers that go through the 3 and 7. 3 or 7 points decide about 30% of NFL games, so oddsmakers aren’t too keen to move off numbers going through this threshold once they have chosen a side.

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