When people think about NFL gambling, they’re usually thinking about betting against the spread (or ATS), which is both a good thing and a bad thing.
What Is the Spread?
The first thing you need to understand about betting against the spread is what exactly we mean by a “spread.” The concept is very simple: A spread is an arbitrary handicap assigned by odds-makers. To explain, imagine playing a game of 1-on-1 basketball with an older brother.
Let’s say that the older brother is the star of the high school varsity team, and you are so young that you only get up to his waist. Obviously, we know who is going to win this game, if both of you are playing your hardest.
But now, let’s imagine you agree that the winner is the first person to score 11 points (all scores count as 1 point), but in order to make things more fun for both of you, you start out with a whopping 8-point head-start. In order to win the game, you only have to score 3 points before your older brother scores 11 points.
This is the essence of an NFL point spread: The spread is simply an adjustment made to the real-life score of an NFL game that is intended to balance out stronger and weaker teams.
The reason why this balance is important to odds-makers goes back to the golden rule of NFL gambling: Odds-makers always try to prompt even action on both sides of a wager. From the perspective of the sportsbook, if both sides of a wager are getting even action, then – no matter the outcome – roughly 50% of the total take goes to the house. Take some of the losers’ money to pay off the winners, give the winners their original principle back, and of course keep the cut that 100% of the gamblers paid as a fee.
So this is the philosophy and the purpose behind the point spread.
In practice, the way that odds-makers balance out the score between the two teams is the same as with the basketball example: they add points to the underdog’s final score, and subtract points from the favorite’s final score. Generally speaking (and I’ll explain this in more detail in the next section), the odds-makers will move the score between 0 and 14 points.
What this leads to is a rather paradoxical situation in which a team may win the game – as in, they go home with a W in the win column – but technically still lose against the spread at the same time.
To explain, let’s go back to our example. In the backyard basketball game described above, let’s say that your brother scores 5 points, and then you score 1 point. 5 more points for big brother, 1 more point for you. At this point the “score” is tied up, 10–10. And let’s say you score the next point – you’ve “won,” despite the fact that technically you scored only 3 points, while your brother scored 10 points.
This is what we mean when we say that a team won (or lost) “against the spread.” The term “betting against the spread” arises from the idea that when you place an ATS bet, you’re not betting against a team. In a moneyline bet, on the contrary, if you bet on Team A to win, you’re betting on Team B to lose.
But with spread betting, even if an NFL team wins the game, they may not win the game by enough points to “cover” the spread. So you’re really not betting against a particular team; instead, you are betting – you guessed it – against the spread.
Now that we understand conceptually what the spread is, let’s look at a real NFL example in order to better explain how this works, and what we mean by “covering” the spread.
How Does the Spread Work?
As I mentioned above, NFL point spreads are generally in the range of 0-14 points. Very often, the spread will cluster around actual amounts of points that could be scored in a game – experienced gamblers often say that a team getting a 3-point spread could be “getting a field goal,” or a team giving a 7-point spread could be “giving a touchdown.”
One last important conceptual distinction we need to make is this: The spread affects both teams equally, but in opposite directions.
In order to understand this, think of a number line. Smack dab in the middle is 0, with a thick red line indicating the current score of the game. Let’s imagine a real NFL matchup: On the far right, we see the New England Patriots logo, with numbers counting up towards them: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, etc. On the far left, imagine the Atlanta Falcons logo, with the same positive numbers counting up towards them.
Let’s say in this imaginary game that the Falcons score first – a touchdown. It’s 7–0, Falcons lead. On our number line, then, the thick red line representing the score moved from 0 (where it stood for the 0–0 score at kickoff) over to the left, towards the Falcons logo, up to 7.
Now let’s imagine that the game keeps progressing. The Patriots score a touchdown. It’s now 7–7 – all tied up. On our number line, then, the thick red line moves backward, towards the Patriots, and ends up right back where it started, at 0. Now let’s say that the Patriots score a field goal: it’s 7–10 New England. This is a lead change; for the first time, the Patriots have taken the lead, and the thick red line is now on their side of the number line.
It’s crucially important to understand this number line concept because this is the way that spreads are assigned.
In our example above, both teams started the game at 0 – that’s where the thick red line was initially set. But in a spread bet, both teams receive the same handicap, but in opposite directions. Let’s look back at the same example, but now with a spread added in.
At the beginning of the game, the scoreboard at the game shows 0–0. However, let’s imagine that the odds-makers believe that that the Patriots are a 3-point favorite (i.e. they are likely to win the game by 3 points). Thus, the spread is set at 3: New England receives a 3-point handicap (i.e. they are “minus 3”) and Atlanta receives the same 3-point handicap in the opposite direction (i.e. they are “plus 3”).
Imagine the number line: The thick red line that indicates the score starts on the side of the Falcons, at 3. (Remember: this is just like the big brother spotting his sibling an 8-point lead in the backyard basketball game.) The Falcons score: On the scoreboard, we see 7–0, Falcons lead. But on our number line, the thick red line shifts down to 10, on the side of the Falcons.
Next, the Patriots score: It’s 7–7 in reality, but on our number line, the thick red line is still on the side of the Falcons, at 3. If the game ended 7–7, it would be a tie in reality, and a Patriots loss/Falcons win against the spread. Now the Patriots score a field goal: It’s 10–7 Patriots, but the thick red line is now at zero.
If the game ended at 10–7 Patriots, this would be called a push. In reality, the Patriots win by 3. But on our number line, the 3-point spread in favor of the Patriots moved the expectations of an even game. According to the spread, an even game means a 3-point win for the Patriots. So in order to be better than just breaking even, the Patriots have to win the game by more than 3. Alternatively, in order for the Falcons to do better than breaking even, they have to win the game or lose by less than 3 points.
With this example, we understand how to conceptualize spread bets: The spread is simply a handicap of arbitrary points (usually between 0 and 14) that pushes the line of an even game towards the underdog. In order to win against the spread, the favorite can’t just win – they have to win by more than the number of points specified in the spread.
Now that we understand how spread betting works, in the next section, I’m going to rattle off some more examples of NFL spread bets, and try to explain how to judge whether a spread bet offers good value or not.
How Do You Bet Against the Spread?
The example I gave above is pretty representative of your average NFL game. (As it turns out, this was the actual line for Super Bowl 51: Patriots -3, Falcons +3.) When two teams are pretty evenly matched, the line is often 3 points, (or “a field goal”).
Once again, remember that the purpose of the line is to promote even action on both sides. Sometimes, the opinion of the gambling public is so evenly split on the outcome of the game that there is no line, or more specifically the line is 0. This is called a pick’em (or “pick”). Because there is no spread, the winner against the spread is the same as just picking the game straight-up.
This demonstrates the general rule of where you can expect the line to be set: The less certain the outcome of a game is, the smaller the line will be. Conversely, the more certain the outcome of a game is, the larger the line will be. Let’s quickly look at some imaginary examples for practice:
- Browns +14 (+125), Patriots -14 (-130) ———————Patriots the heavy home favorite
- Seahawks -8.5 (-115), Rams +8.5 (+105) ——————Seahawks favored on the road
- Jaguars +7 (-110), Raiders -7 (-110) ————————–Raiders giving a touchdown at home
- Colts +4.5 (-110), Titans -4.5 (EVEN) ————————Titans favored at home; typical line
- Ravens +3 (-115), Steelers -3 (-105) ————————–Ravens getting a field goal on the road
- Dolphins -1.5 (+120), Jets +1.5 (-115) ———————–Jets a rare home underdog; small line
- Vikings PICK (-110), Bengals PICK (-110) —————–A good old-fashioned pick’em
I’ve included these specifically to provide the range of lines you will ordinarily see throughout the course of an NFL season. Lines above two touchdowns are rare, and picks are even rarer. The most common range you will see is between a 2- and an 8-point spread.
A couple things become immediately apparent when I throw together some lines in this way. First, it’s possible to have half-point lines. Naturally, you cannot score a half-point in an NFL game. A half-point line ensures that the game will not end in a push, and simply provides a different level of choice for the gambler – sometimes harder, sometimes easier.
For example, take the Seahawks/Rams line above. Perhaps you are very comfortable with the Seahawks winning by 7 points, and you might conceivably take them to win by 8 points, but 9 points is just too much. In this case, if the line had been 8 instead of 8.5, you would have felt much more comfortable taking the Seahawks: If they end up winning by 8 on a -8 line, it’s a push and you get your money back. If they end up winning by 8 on a -8.5 line, you lose.
The second thing that is obvious from looking at the imaginary spread bets listed above is that spread bets also receive odds. In the case of moneyline betting, the odds are the only tool that odds-makers have to promote even action on both sides of a line. For spread betting, they get two chances to do this. Let me explain.
Take the Jaguars/Raiders line above. This is one of the most standard opening lines you will ever see. The Raiders are giving a touchdown, so if the Jaguars lose by less than 7 points (or win) they cover the spread. The odds for both teams are at -110, standard opening odds for most even, uncontentious bets. Let’s say that this is the opening line for the Jags/Raiders game that is posted on Monday afternoon.
But now let’s imagine that on Wednesday, the flu breaks out in the Raiders locker room. Eleven players miss practice time to recover, and it’s publicly announced on Thursday that four key offensive starters are not going to play in the game.
Right or wrong, obviously based on this breaking news a huge percentage of the gambling public is going to bet on the Jaguars. Even though roughly half of the gamblers thought the Raiders would win by 8 points or more before, let’s say that now half of those people who had initially taken the Raiders are starting to talk themselves into the Jaguars, saying Well with so many starters out, it could be a close game.
Now, odds-makers are in a pickle. Suddenly, 75% of the gambling public is wagering on the Jaguars, so if the Jaguars win against the spread the sportsbook could potentially lose money. What can they do to return the betting back to even action on both sides?
On the one hand, they could change the line – say, to Raiders by 4.5. But they can’t do this because people have already placed their wager on the previous line. They don’t want to have to refund all of those wagers. Think of how outraged the people would be who initially bet on the Jaguars.
Instead, the odds-makers will generally adjust the odds of the wager. So the spread will remain the same – Raiders by 7 – but the odds might shift – say, to Jaguars +7 (-140), Raiders -7 (+135). This means that even though the Jaguars are more likely to cover (i.e. there is less risk), their odds now also offer a worse payoff (i.e. there is less reward). This is just the way of the market.
Now, with all of this information about spread betting explained, it becomes pretty clear how to bet against the spread. To bet against the spread, simply determine which team is going to cover the spread, and determine whether there is good value in their odds. If so, wager.
Naturally, even though this now makes sense conceptually, it’s not as easy as it sounds. In the next section, I’ll cover some specifics around the strategy of evaluating the odds, of determining whether there is good value, and using this intuition to know when to place an ATS bet.
When Should You Place an ATS bet?
The golden rule of when to place a wager – any type of wager – is when there is good value. Value, of course, means the combination of lower risk with higher reward. Naturally, it is the constant goal of odds-makers to continuously provide wagers where the risk matches the reward, so hunting for value takes practice and skill.
For betting against the spread, the first step to finding good value is understanding the deeper meaning behind a line. Experienced gamblers become adept at interpreting why odds-makers set lines the way that they do. Once again: The golden rule is that odds-makers are always trying to promote even action. So in order to understand what a line means, you have to understand what the gambling public is thinking.
For example, one of the traditional principles about betting against the spread is that home-field advantage generally provides a 3-point swing in the line. So take the imaginary Ravens/Steelers example above. When the home team is getting a line of -3, this is basically like hearing Vegas say These two teams are completely evenly matched, but because the Steelers are at home, I’m giving them a field goal advantage.
This home-field field-goal advantage principle also tells us two interesting things about the last two imaginary examples listed above: 1) If the Jets are giving 1.5 points at home, this means that Vegas believes that if the game were played in Miami, the Dolphins would be a 4.5-point favorite. 2) If the Vikings/Bengals game is a pick’em in Cincinnati, this means that the Vikings would be a 6-point favorite if the game were played in Minnesota.
The point here is that it’s important to factor in home-field advantage when you are interpreting the lines. There is a similar point to be made about lines between 4 and 5.
As players, coaches, and experienced fans know, the interval between 4 and 5 is unique in the game of football. The reason for this is that a 4- or 5-point deficit in a football game is fundamentally different than a 3- or 6-point deficit. Let’s take a look at an example to illustrate.
Imagine that the Denver Broncos are playing the Chicago Bears. There is 2:15 left in the fourth quarter, and the score is 17–20. Chicago is winning. The Broncos score a touchdown, so as soon as they do 6 points go on the board. Now the score is 23–20, Broncos are winning, with two minutes left in the game.
But before the Broncos kick the ball back to the Bears, they are faced with a decision: Do they go for the two-point conversion, or kick the extra point? This is where the weirdness comes out with 4 and 5 points. In this case, Denver must kick the extra point.
If they kick the extra point, they have a 95% chance to go up 24–20, and thus they force Chicago to score a touchdown to win. If the Bears then kick a field goal and the game ends, Denver wins 24–23. If the Broncos instead go for two, they have a much lower chance to go up 25–20, or they could just as easily miss and go up 23–20. If they miss, Chicago can kick a field goal to send the game into overtime.
But here’s the important point: Even if they make the two-point conversion, they are still no better off than if they had taken the safer bet and kicked the extra point. Whether Denver is leading by 4 points or leading by 5 points, Chicago still must score a touchdown to win the game.
This is simply a fact of life in the game of football, arising simply from the fact that scoring plays are worth 1, 2, 3, or 6 points. What this has to do with spread betting is simply to demonstrate that 4- and 5-point finishing scores are comparatively rare in NFL games. More often, either the game ends on a multiple of 3 or 7 or some combination of these two numbers, or (in the event of a close game) a 4- or 5-point deficit gets cut down to 1 or 2 points.
Seriously, I’m not kidding: Once you start to really look at the outcomes of NFL games, you’ll notice that this pattern holds true.
The overall takeaway here is that 4- or 5-point spreads generally indicate that odds-makers have no idea who is going to win the game. They’re not confident enough that the game is going to be close to bring it down to 2.5, 3, or 3.5, but they’re also not confident enough that one team is going to win to favor that team with 6, 6.5, or 7 points. When I see a line in the 4-5 range, I hesitate.
Now that we understand these specific peculiarities about ATS bets, it becomes clear when to place a wager. Place an ATS wager when you understand what the line means, and when you disagree. Not to sound like a broken record, but remember: The odds-makers are setting the line to prompt even action amongst the gambling public, and the gambling public (generally speaking) is full of suckers.
A huge proportion of gamblers will be betting solely to offer blind support to their favorite team (so very popular teams might see an unjustified bump in a line). Another portion of the gambling public will be betting only on nationally televised games (so they have someone to root for, so nationally televised games are often unjustifiably altered to reflect national storylines).
As a result of these and other similar patterns in the way that lines are set by odds-makers, there will be plenty of times when you will look at a line and say, Wait…that can’t be right!
Trust this feeling. One technique that I do with spread betting is I guess the line myself, before it’s posted. I run through the actual calculation in my head: Well, the Cowboys are at home, so there are three points there…their average point differential is 3 points higher than the other team’s, so there’s another three…the other team has injuries here, so that adds another point, or maybe a half-point?…
If this personal calculation of what the line “should be” differs dramatically from the actual line that gets posted, I know that either I am way off, or that the odds-makers might be way off, and that if the latter is the case there could be good value in a bet. By the same token, if the odds for a given line change throughout the week, this tips me off that the gambling public might be betting one side disproportionately.
Over time, you’ll learn to interpret the lines using the strategies that I’ve listed immediately above, and you’ll also develop a wealth of your own personal knowledge, gained from practice and experience. It’s not something you can learn overnight, but following these tips you should be well on your way to determining where there is good value to be found in ATS bets.
Summary: NFL Spread Betting Strategy
Betting against the spread (ATS) has become emblematic of NFL gambling in general. This is good (because ATS is a ton of fun), but also bad (because people mistakenly believe it’s very complicated). In simple terms, betting against the spread is simply picking the winner of the game with a slight adjustment to the final score, handicapping the outcome to promote even action on both sides.
In principle, this adjustment is the same idea as giving someone a head start in a race or letting your little brother start out your backyard basketball game with a 5-point lead right out of the gate, to make things more fair. A spread is an arbitrary number of points assigned by odds-makers that swings the number that would indicate an even outcome in the direction of the underdog.
This leads to a rather paradoxical situation in which a team may win a game (against their opponent), but at the same time lose the game (against the spread). Let’s say the 49ers are getting 7 points against the Chargers in San Diego. If the Chargers win the game by 8 points, they beat the ‘niners and win against the spread. If the Chargers win by 6 points, they beat the ‘niners, but lose against the spread.
Generally, the spread lies between 0 and 14 points. The lower the spread, the more even the matchup; the higher the spread, the more certain the outcome one way or another. A spread of 0 is called a pick’em – gamblers just pick the outcome of the game straight-up. Picks are rare, as are lines greater than two touchdowns (14+). In addition, lines are assigned odds, e.g. Browns +10.5 (+125).
Half-point odds keep lines from pushing, a situation defined as when the outcome of the game ends up exactly on the line itself (e.g. the Chargers were favored by 7 and they won by 7). Odds-makers use both the line itself as well as the odds to prompt even action on both sides of the line, but it’s standard procedure for a book not to change the line throughout the week, and to change only the odds.
Knowing when to place an ATS wager depends on the ability to accurately interpret the line. Three points are generally given to the home team, and lines between 4 and 5 generally indicate that the odds-makers have no idea what the outcome of the game will be. It’s essential to know how odds-makers are trying to manipulate the gambling public: this enables the savvy gambler to find good value.
In reality, it’s impossible to explain exactly how to find good value: it’s a matter of skill, experience, and feel, that takes time and practice to develop. But a good general rule of thumb worth considering is to find those instances in which you have good reason to believe that the gambling public (or the odds-maker) is wrong about what the outcome will be, and you know better. Trust your gut, and you’ll learn.
Finally, it’s important to note that all of the above information applies specifically to NFL spread betting strategy. If you are looking for general information on how to gather information about games, and how to determine what the outcome of any NFL matchup will be, check out the more general page outlining my personal three-stage NFL Betting Strategy.
In conclusion, NFL spread betting is a fantastic way to enhance your NFL viewing experience. In my 15+ years of NFL gambling experience, nothing has come second to my enjoyment of betting ATS. With the tips provided above, I hope that you can develop your skills just as I have, and utilize my NFL spread betting strategy for a profitable gambling career.