NFL odds & American football betting explained

By Stuart Dick

NFL odds and betting

Published: 17:10, 2 September 2021 | Updated: 14:23, 11 February 2022

Betting on American football or NFL can seem like a whole different activity for those unfamiliar with concepts like spread betting, money line or prop betting.

Which is a shame. Because, being a high-scoring game, NFL is the subject of much in-depth, data-driven betting content. And markets like prop betting (first touchdown scorer, for instance), picking outright (or ‘money line’) winners, along with over/under, handicap and traditional markets make American Football well suited to fans who enjoy a wager.

So here’s a guide with all you need to know (providing you’re over 18 and Gamble Aware). To the uninitiated, welcome to the world of money lines, fractional vs. decimal odds, and the nuances of wagering on NFL.

How does spread betting work?

The most popular style of sports betting in the US, and one that is becoming quite popular in the UK, is handicap, or ‘point spread’ (or simply ‘spread’) betting. In essence, the handicap, or ‘spread’ is a way for bookmakers to offer level odds on any game, even if the teams involved are unevenly matched.

A point spread is the number of points by which the team that is considered inferior (the ‘underdog’) can lose an actual game, while still winning in the eyes of the betting market. As mentioned above, the point spread attempts to level the playing field in a game between teams of differing quality.

The spread is initially determined by bookmakers, and then subject to open market forces. There is a robust industry in the US for tipsters (or ‘touts’) attempting to predict against-the-spread (‘ATS’) winners in NFL games every weekend during the season. The most reputable of these individuals will transparently keep an updated record of their results throughout the season, and perhaps even further back.

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An example of a point spread wager

Imagine, for example, that the San Francisco 49ers are 1/4 (-400) to defeat the Detroit Lions outright (or ‘straight up’), while the Lions are 16/5 (+320) to win the game. Despite offering the greater payout, the Lions are unlikely to attract an even share of betting activity, as they are, by all accounts, unlikely to win the game. In order to level out the odds and ideally attract equal amounts of wagers on each team, an oddsmakers will set a handicap for the favoured side (in this case the 49ers).

In this example, the spread is set at 7.5, meaning 49ers must win by at least eight points to ‘cover the spread’, and win money for their backers. If the 49ers win by seven or fewer points or lose the game outright, anyone who’s bet on the Lions is a winner.

Should the 49ers win 30-22, an individual who bet on the 49ers to cover the 7.5 point spread would win their bet, as the final margin is eight points. However, if the game ends 30-23 to the 49ers, those who bet on the Lions would win the wager, as the final 7-point margin is smaller than the +7.5-point handicap given to the Lions.

As a result of the handicap, each side of the wager is 10/11 (or ‘-110’) to win. This means that, in order to win $10, a bettor must risk $11. In this example, if a wager wins, a bettor receives $21, the stake plus winnings. The additional $1 risked, known as ‘vigorish’ (or ‘the vig’) is the fee charged by a bookmaker for accepting a wager.

There may be multiple lines (sometimes called ‘adjusted lines’) set by the bookmaker (i.e. Lions +6.5, +7.5, +8.5), with the odds adjusted for each. For instance, a bettor willing to accept a smaller handicap will receive a larger payout (+175; meaning $10, with no vig, to win $17.50) if victorious, while a bettor requiring a larger handicap, must assume greater risk (-225; meaning that, in order to win $10, $22.50 must be wagered).

How does Over/Under (totals) betting work?

Over/Under, or ‘totals’ bets open up more possibilities for bettors. This type of bet can be applied to just about any element of the game, including points scored, yards gained, touchdowns scored, successful field goals, penalties committed, and more.

As with point spreads, the bookmaker sets Over/Under (O/U) lines and then adjusts accordingly based on market activity. Over/Under bets can be made on both teams combined, a single team, or individual players. Also similarly, there may also be multiple lines set by the bookmaker (i.e. O/U total points 40.5, 42.5, 44.5) with odds adjusted to each one accordingly.

Over/Under betting example

In a game between the Philadelphia Eagles and Dallas Cowboys, the total points Over/Under might be set 44.5 points. This means if teams combine to score 44 points in total during the game or fewer, those who backed the Under win their bets. If the teams combine for 45 points, the Over bettors win.

The O/U 44.5 could be the predicted line for the bookmaker with odds of 10/11 (-110) for both the Under and Over. As mentioned before, other lines will be available with adjusted odds. For example, a line of 40.5 may have odds of -225 (or 4/9) for the Over, and +175 (or 7/4) for the Under.

What is money line betting?

Wagers can be placed on just about any eventuality in an NFL game. One of the most popular types of bet, however, is the simplest: the ‘money line’. This is a two-way bet on which team will win the game. Plain and simple. Of course, this leaves no option for a tied game, which can occur if the score remains tied after regulation and a 10-minute overtime period. In the event of a tie, bettors on both sides lose. Of course, bets can be made that a game will end in a tie, or simply that it will go into overtime. These wagers tend to offer greater payouts but carry more risk.

Money line betting example

For example, the New England Patriots might be +225 (9/4) to beat the Buffalo Bills. The Bills, meanwhile, are -300 (1/3) to defeat New England.

NFL odds explained

For readers from outside the States, it’s important to understand the differences in how odds are quoted in the US, as compared with the UK and the rest of Europe. This is key to understanding not only the terms of a wager but also its potential payout.

The American markets, unlike the UK and its fraction-based odds, use a +/- system based on a bet of $100. These are used across all betting markets.

For example, on a future bet such as Super Bowl winner, each team will be designated a value based on their probability of winning the Vince Lombardi Trophy. Say, for instance, the New York Jets have odds of +2000. This would mean a bet of $100 would earn a return profit of $2000. In fractional odds, this is a 20/1 wager.

When a negative value is attributed to a team above –100 it means the bet is odds on. A –200 translates to 1/2, -900 translates to 1/9 and so on. A –900 bet of $100 would return a profit of $11.11.

In the example above, a winning wager of $10 on the Patriots would yield $32.50 ($10, plus $22.50 won), while a winning wager on the Bills would require that $30 be risked in order to win $10.

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Other Popular NFL Betting Markets

NFL futures betting

Futures bets, or ‘outright bets’, are longer-term wagers that are made before (or sometimes during) the season, with the outcome not determined until later in the season, or after the Super Bowl. Examples of futures bets include Super Bowl winner, AFC and NFC winners and division winners. Futures bets can also be placed on regular seasons wins for each team – an extremely popular category – a team reaching the playoffs or the Super Bowl, or a team receiving #1 overall pick in the next NFL Draft.

Futures bets can also be made on end-of-season awards for individuals. Categories include Most Valuable Player (MVP), Offensive and Defensive Player of the Year, Offensive and Defensive Rookie of the Year, Coach of the Year and Comeback Player of the Year.

As the season ends and NFL Draft discussion begins, many bookmakers will offer markets such as the final player drafted, the first player in each position taken and which player will be picked by each team.

Parlay/Accumulator Betting

Given the immense interest in the NFL and the data-driven nature of the sport, NFL wagering possibilities are almost endless. Included in a bettor’s wealth of options are strategies than can be employed to boost potential payouts. Many with an interest in NFL wagering will look to combine a series of bets in order to increase their odds. These popular wagers are known as ‘parlays’, or ‘accumulators’.

A money line parlay, in which an individual picks straight-up winners of a series of NFL games, is the simplest way to combine bets to boost odds. However, for a typical parlay to pay out, every single wager included in it must win.

Similarly, a point spread parlay can be placed, in which a punter picks winners based on the points spreads and Over/Under lines published by the bookmaker. As mentioned earlier, NFL tipsters will generally look to tip as many spread winners as possible, as they are perceived to be 50/50 match-ups.

In addition to money lines, points spreads and Over/Unders (all of which can be combined in a single parlay) a parlay may also include ‘prop bets’.

Prop betting on players and teams

A prop (or ‘proposition’) bet is a side bet made on events within a game (or over the course of a season), beyond those covered in the main betting markets. Prop bets, which are popular with both casual fans and more sophisticated bettors, can relate to individual players, units or teams as a whole.

NFL props can be Over/Under bets on (based on a player’s position) passing, rushing and receiving yards, and number of carries, receptions and touchdowns scored, and (for defensive players) sacks, tackles and interceptions made. Similar prop bets can be made on defensive units as a whole. These include number of interceptions, number of turnovers, points allowed, and sacks made.

Examples of prop bets would include backing Tom Brady to throw for at least 303.5 yards in a single game, or DeVante Adams to catch 100+ receptions in a season.

Prop bets can also be used to add value to money line and spread bets or can be put together across various matchups to form an accumulator. Props bets are available over an entire season, a single game and even a single quarter or single play.

NFL betting glossary

Term Definition
Covering the Spread Covering the spread is a term used in spread betting. Covering the spread is when the favoured team wins the bet by scored more than the point spread advertised.
Futures bet A futures bet, or outright bet, is a bet placed on the outcome of an event in the future. This could be divisional winner, conference winner, team record, Super Bowl record or many others.
Market A market is a category of bets on an individual event. Bookmakers will host a multitude of betting markets for each NFL matchup.
Money line bet A money line bet is a two-way bet on the outright winner of a single game, reflecting each team’s rough chances of winning.
Money line odds Money line odds are used in the American market. Odds are based on a +/- value based on a $100 bet.
Over/Under The Over/Under is a value set by the bookmaker to decide the determining line of an individual market. Odds are then set accordingly.
Over/Under Betting Over/Under betting is base don whether a team (or both teams combined) accumulate more (or less) points/yards/touchdowns than a line set by the bookmaker. Total points scored by both teams is the most popular bet in the category.
Prop bet A prop (or proposition) bet, is a side bet that’s not necessarily concerned with the outcome of the game. These wagers exist alongside the main betting markets. Prop bets can be made on the performances of individual players or entire teams, over a single quarter, a single game, or an entire season.
Spread The spread is the line set by the bookmaker in a single game market to even the odds. Both sides of the bet come in at just under Evens, allowing for the bookmaker to take a small profit in theory.
Spread Betting Spread betting is when a wager is made on the Spread (see above) set by the bookmaker for an individual match-up.

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