How NFL Football Point Spreads Work

by | Jul 26, 2021

My first trip to a Vegas Sportsbook was a disaster. I was so excited to place a bet that I didn’t bother to learn how point spreads work (or what they were, for that matter!) I looked at the odds board (I didn’t understand anything other than recognizing a team’s name and the time the game started!) and blurted out that I wanted to bet on the Minnesota Vikings. The ticket writer (the guy behind the window) asked if I wanted to bet the spread, money line, or total. He also asked for a rotation number, which I also knew nothing about. I could see that he was frustrated with me, so I explained that I had never placed a wager before. He then put it in layman’s terms for me with something like, “Do you want Minnesota to win by 7 or more or just win the game straight up?” I was still confused why they’d have to win by 7. However, I went with it because there was a giant line behind me. Between this guy being frustrated with me and the people behind me, I just wanted to take cover and get back to my seat!

I’ve obviously come a long way since that day 30+ years ago, and unbelievably, I’m now a professional football handicapper who instructs people how to bet NFL point spreads and gives advice on which side they should bet to turn a profit. In this article, I’ll break NFL betting down into a simple, easy-to-understand explanation. I’ve also written other articles explaining different types of bets, such as how to bet money lines and how to bet NFL totals (over/unders). If you still have questions, feel free to drop me a line at predictem@gmail.com, as I’m happy to help you out! Enjoy!

What is a Point Spread?

The NFL point spread is the most common, popular, and economical way to bet on football games.

When two NFL teams meet, oftentimes, one team is viewed as better than their opponent. That team is referred to as the favorite. The lesser-skilled team is referred to as the underdog. In order to make it a fair fight, bookmakers create a spread/line as an “equalizer” to give both teams somewhat equal wagering value and to attract bets on both teams. One way of looking at it is if you were in a foot race with somebody faster than you, they might give you a 10 or 15 step head start to make the race even; otherwise, you’d get smoked 95% of the time. When this idea is applied to football betting, the oddsmakers are essentially giving the lesser skilled underdog a head start by awarding them extra points before the game starts. Conversely, the better team is starting behind (for betting purposes). Let’s take a look at an example of a point spread and how it applies to a real bet. We’ll use Super Bowl LV between the Tampa Bay Buccaneers vs. Kansas City Chiefs as an example:

  • Kansas City Chiefs -3
  • Tampa Bay Buccaneers +3

(Note: This game was played at a neutral venue, however, as a general rule of thumb, the road team will always be listed first/on top, and the home team will always be listed second/on bottom).

The favorite in a game always has a minus sign (-) in front of their spread. The underdog is always the team with the plus sign (+). In the scenario above, KC was a 3-point favorite. TB was a 3-point underdog. At the time, the Chiefs were viewed as a slightly superior team (public perception loves offense; the truth is defense wins Super Bowls!), so they were favored to win the game. To many people’s surprise, the Buccaneers absolutely throttled the Chiefs and won the game straight up by a score of 31-9.
While the game score was 31-9, the betting score if you were on TB was 34, and the betting score for KC bettors was 6. Confused? That’s ok, we’ll dig deeper into this!

The easiest way to explain how point spreads work is that you take a favorite’s real/true final score and SUBTRACT their point spread from it (Chiefs were -3, so you’d subtract three from their final score; 9-3=6).

Or… take the underdog’s real/true final score and ADD their point spread to it (Bucs were +3, so you’d add 3 to their final score; 31+3=34).

You only make the adjustment to the team that YOU are betting on.

Another (more simple, but backward) perspective on how an NFL point spread works is the favorite is starting the game down by the number of points after the minus sign, and the underdog is starting the game ahead by the number of points after the plus sign.

A third way of understanding an NFL spread is to look at KC and think, “I have to win by 3 to push, and any win by 4 or more is a winner”.

or if betting TB, “I can lose by 3 and stll push, lose by 1 or 2 and win, or any straight up win is a winner.”

There are lots of ways to perceive an NFL line. I hope one of the three listed above resonates with you!

What happens if a game ties after the point spread is applied? The game goes down as a tie (push) for betting purposes, and your money is refunded. There are lots of unscrupulous bookies out there that will call a tie a loss OR keep the vigorish/juice. If you’re playing into one of these clown shows, you SERIOUSLY need to consider getting out from under that rock and playing with a more professional sportsbook. It’s hard enough to beat the point spread long term. You don’t need to be getting screwed from the back end as well!

While it doesn’t apply to the 2021 Super Bowl, oftentimes, you’ll see NFL lines with “half points.” This essentially guarantees that one side or the other will win the game as there can’t be a tie when half points are involved in football gambling. Another type of spread you might see is “PK” or a “Pick’em.” The means there is no spread, and your pick just needs to win the game to cover the spread.

Before we move on, let’s take a look at an example of where a point spread actually mattered (It didn’t come into play in the 2021 Super Bowl due to the blowout by Tom Brady and Co.)

Example:

  • Dallas Cowboys +4.5
  • Pittsburgh Steelers -4.5

Let’s say the Steelers won the game 24-20. While they would have won the game straight up by 4 points, if you had bet Pittsburgh against the spread, you’d have lost. They scored 24, but after you minus their -4.5 spread, their score for betting purposes would be 19, losing by 1 point at 19.5 to 20.

If you had bet Dallas at +4.5, you’d add 4.5 to their 20 for a final betting score of 24.5 to 24, giving them a half-point win.

Point Spread Betting Odds - What Does -110 Mean?

The -110 you see next to each team are the betting odds. This is how the bookie makes his money and stays in business. Betting odds have numerous nicknames, with the most common being vig, vigorish, house advantage, or “juice”. In theory, it’s how they make their money. However, they make a lot more based on public perception (sucker bets) and having better information than the general betting public.

An easy way to understand the -110 (or whatever number is after the minus) is that’s how much you have to bet/risk/lay to win $100. Another way to view this is you’ll have to wager $1.10 for every $1.00 you’re trying to win/profit. If you win your bet, you collect both your original stake plus the win amount. It should be noted that you may see lines that read -107 or -112, -115, or even -120. It’s the same principle; If you’re betting into a -120, you have to risk $120 to win $100. A small bettor looking to win $10 would need to lay/risk $12. A micro-bettor looking to win $1.00 would need to risk $1.20. For more information on this topic, see our piece on How Vig Works in Sports Betting.

Most gamblers view football bets as a 50/50 proposition. They aren’t! Having to pay the vig/juice at -110 odds creates a situation where you have to win 52.38% of your bets just to break even! While it sounds simple, it isn’t. We don’t want to deter you from betting on football because it’s extremely entertaining, but if you think you’re going to clean house and get over on the bookies long term, you’re mistaken. It’s a full-time job, and even then, it’s a rough gig. Most simply don’t have the time to devote to it as they have families, jobs, and chores that suck up most of their time. One of the great things about our website is that we’re not just an encyclopedia about betting. We’re professional handicappers who spend all of our waking hours studying the current climate of the NFL and applying decades of knowledge each weekend. We offer these picks to our readers FREE of charge on our Free Picks Page! Bookmark it and check it out daily to compare your picks with ours or simply ride our coattails. We’re pretty good!

Before we get off the topic of -110 and football betting odds, it should be noted that all sportsbooks aren’t created equal, and there are a few that offer incredible value not found elsewhere. As stated above, a bettor has to hit 52.38% as a break-even point when betting at -110 odds. One of the biggest gifts in the sports betting industry is the ability to bet at reduced odds. A few betting sites offer it on Fridays during a specific block of hours, but you can bet on games 24/7 at -105 odds at BetAnySports Sportsbook. To an astute bettor, it’s the best thing since sliced bread and will save you a TON of money! Not to mention, it reduces your break-even point to 51.19%, which gives you a much better shot of showing profits long term! Click here to sign up today. You’ll be so glad you did!

Different Types of Football Point Spreads

There’s more football betting than picking which team will cover the final score. Bookmakers have evolved over the years, and you can place wagers online that include first half bets, bet on a specific quarter, and you can even make a halftime bet where all that matters is what happens in the 3rd and 4th quarter! The sportsbook offering the most types of these wagers, as well as tons of prop bets, is Bovada Sportsbook. Credit cards work there for deposits, they give you a 50% real cash bonus up to $250, and you get rebates on every bet; win, lose or draw, and they pay FAST! We’ve seen payouts within 30 minutes for those who deposit/withdrawal using Bitcoin!

Why Point Spreads Change

Shifts in point spreads are commonly known as “line moves”. There are multiple reasons a spread can move, including but not limited to player injuries, the volume of bets coming in (one-sided action), and weather conditions.

If a key player gets hurt, the public perception on the game changes, and so can the line.

If a sportsbook is getting hammered on one side, they’ll move the line to try to balance out the action, as in a perfect world, they’d love to have even action and just collect the juice (the vigorish). This is a tricky conversation, though, as they also want to limit their liability to one side. Bookmakers are in the game for the long haul and don’t take risks because they don’t need to.

Lastly, if a game is projected to have poor weather, whether it be rain, snow, or wind, it can wreak havoc on a team’s passing game, so adjustments are made to compensate for the potentially different style of play forecasted.

It should be noted that if you bet on a football game at a certain number, you’re locked into that spread despite how much it moves and what it closes at when the game kicks off.

How Point Spreads are Calculated

The books have their own set of power rankings. They create an algorithm that includes but is not limited to (and not in this order) strength of schedule, statistics, sabermetrics, venue, weather, player tendencies, public perception, historical matchups, injuries, rivalries, and more. This is not information that you or I will ever get to see as it’s hidden under lock and key. Information is power. Soak up as much as you can to give yourself the best shot of winning! Sometimes it’s that simple!

Spread Betting Tips

Know your key numbers well! With most of the scoring in football be being done by 3’s and 7’s, these numbers and a few more end up being common final score margins. You can increase your odds of winning by as much as 5% by not being on the wrong side of these important digits!

Pay attention to line movement! There’s a reason Bookies change spreads. Especially close to kickoff! If you can’t figure out why it’s moving, it may be best to avoid that particular contest.

Pay close attention to weather reports. The game narrative tends to change when the wind blows at 15mph or higher. This gives certain teams a distinct advantage! Wind kills passing games and creates more of a running environment where the clock gets eaten up faster, and scores tend to be lower.

There’s a common misconception that Vegas is good and that point spreads are accurate. This couldn’t be further from the truth! While some games land close to the spread, many don’t!

Avoid betting big money on your favorite team. Your perception is skewed because you’re emotional about them. Betting with your heart will create an empty wallet. Believe it!

Look for teams with multiple injuries to their offensive line and fade them (bet against). There can be a massive difference between a starting OL and a second-stringer. If multiple starters are down, it creates timing issues as well as blocking issues. If a QB has no time to throw, he’ll spend time in the grass with his offense moving backward. This is one of the best football betting tips you’ll ever get and one that I focus on weekly!

This article was specifically written about point spreads. There’s another way to bet on a team without having to win by a certain amount of points or lose within a certain amount of points. It’s called Money Line Betting. While it looks easy, it’s not because of the odds (price) involved. If you bet on a favorite at -200 and it loses, you have to win twice in a row just to break even! While less stressful, it’s not a good long-term plan unless you know what you’re doing. For more info, check out my article on how moneyline betting works.