How to Take Advantage of Line Movement in the NFL

profile image of Ian.Wharton
DeVonta Smith #6 of the Philadelphia Eagles. Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images/AFP

Bettors will hear the advice “bet against the public” again and again. But it’s a confusing slogan at first because don’t sportsbooks set the odds in Vegas?

Sure. But in heavy-action markets like the NFL, line movement occurs in the days or weeks leading up to every contest. Sportsbooks try to balance the number of wagers taken on either side of a line, so NFL line movement happens when the public starts leaning heavily toward one team or result.

The betting lines are adjusted by odds managers, who may choose to continue raising or lowering a number until the action balances out. But if the bookie’s initial handicap was accurate, and the betting public has been mistaken, the resulting lines can be taken advantage of for profit.

Before learning how to take advantage of NFL line movement and changing odds, it’s important to know just how a situation might come about in which NFL Vegas lines close less accurately than they open.

Lines can move for a number of reasons, only some of which are dependent on the buzz leading up to a kickoff. Here are some of the ins and outs of the NFL line movement.

Betting for Fun Can Cause NFL Line Movement

The most common cause of NFL line movement is recreational betting. Handicappers love to talk about how the moneylines for underdogs tend to be undervalued thanks to bettors “picking winners” instead of looking at the odds and the payoffs. That’s true enough, but it’s not the only way betting for fun affects NFL line movement.

For instance, the average bettor wagering on the Over/Under is more likely to pick the ‘over’ bet for a National Football League contest. Why? Because it’s more fun to cheer for two offenses to have a good day and score points than to cheer for fumbles, interceptions, and penalties.

Yes, O/U lines sink lower all the time – we’ll get to why that can happen in a minute. But all things equal, the natural pull of recreational betting causes point totals to rise slightly on average.

Vegas bookies base their opening O/U point totals on many years’ worth of trends and complex handicapping. While sportsbooks occasionally make mistakes, it’s the betting public’s urge to bet on the over-total points that tends to give ‘under’ bets value if wagered on Friday or Saturday of a typical pro football week.

This phenomenon varies from sport to sport. Popular goaltenders and hurlers may draw a lot of ‘under’ action in soccer, ice hockey, and baseball. But when it comes to NFL line movement, the O/U tends to tick up slightly in any contest where all else is equal.

In Week 3 of the 2018-19 NFL season, Tom Brady and the New England Patriots traveled to Detroit to take on the 0-2 Lions at Ford Field. The Pats had been clobbered by the Jaguars in a Week 2 AFC Championship Game rematch and were missing key performers like Julian Edelman.

The Detroit Lions opened as (+6 ½) point underdogs. Given that New England didn’t appear ready to take its show on the road yet, one might have expected the Lions to become a popular pick against the spread. But no, instead the line on Detroit increased to (+7) and eventually (+7 ½) in some markets.

That’s exactly the kind of NFL line movement that occurs when an iconic, world-famous franchise takes on a team with a more localized following. Detroit is a great NFL city, but its team’s modern legacy is paltry compared to that of Tom Brady and Bill Belichick. While many fans despise the Patriots, it doesn’t take 50% of the country’s recreational bettors to change a line. It only takes a rabid group of fans betting for good luck, and Brady’s team has the edge in that department.

Detroit beat New England straight-up and easily covered the spread, meaning that the smart choice was the hosts to cover all along.

More Causes of NFL Line Movement: Injuries

When a star NFL performer goes down with an injury, it can quickly change a sportsbook’s odds for a game, match, or tournament as the betting public learns of the ailment.

But Vegas bookies must weigh several factors when an injury to a quarterback, a tailback, or a safety casts him as not at 100% or a likely scratch on Sunday.

Knowing how a key injury will affect NFL line movement rests on understanding how the hole in the lineup will actually change the outcome compared to how public perception is affected.

Starting QBs can tend to be a little over-valued, for instance, as their injury problems make the biggest headlines, and “name-brand recognition” is a factor that causes punditry to skew toward famous QB duels, forgetting that with the right supporting cast, a backup can be effective and even lift a team.

Jameis Winston’s early absence from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ starting lineup in 2018 was not caused by an injury, but it is illustrative of how the betting public reacts to the news at the QB position. Winston’s backup, Ryan Fitzpatrick, was not expected to dominate in the passing game, causing money lines on Tampa Bay to grow longer. But after Fitzpatrick tossed 8 touchdowns in 2 games and carved out a bigger role for himself in the franchise, those Bucs moneylines shortened again in a hurry.

NFL Line Movement: News Media and Reporting

The NFL news media wrote the late Bill Walsh, “Will completely change their point of view in 24 hours. Most will carefully straddle the fence until a clearer outcome can be determined…then the same fence straddle-ers will claim that they had it called right from the beginning.”

Gosh. Tell us how you really feel, Bill.

Besides being a source of annoyance to all 32 NFL teams, the media can help NFL line movement occur when it hypes up a story that is not as significant as the 90% airtime dedication makes it seem.

Of course, that’s not exclusive to stories on the gridiron. Overheated news coverage and speculation can impact life on and off the field and impact Vegas odds even in the offseason.

For instance, “Deflategate” received endless coverage in the media, but despite being a minor distraction for the Patriots, it didn’t affect many betting outcomes in the end. A historian looking through the final scores centuries from now will conclude that New England was the usual powerhouse throughout the entire circus.

Examples of the Media Circus Affecting Vegas Lines

To use a well-known example from another sport, the Vegas Golden Knights almost ruined sportsbooks after opening at 500-to-1 Stanley Cup futures odds and attracting souvenir bettors. The media was obsessed with the idea of the Vegas team bankrupting its own city, and some fans didn’t wager on the Golden Knights in the playoffs since the betting lines had moved so far. How could the winnings compare to 500-to-1? But the stories themselves were a source of mild amusement to the players, who are restricted from gambling anyway. They raced ahead to the Finals and were eventually odds-on favorites before finishing runner-up on the year.

Two principles of the NFL line movement came into conflict at Super Bowl LII. The media was in overdrive reporting whispers on an impending “breakup” between Robert Kraft, Bill Belichick, and Tom Brady of the Patriots. Typically, the talk of discord among the defending NFL champions would have caused line movement toward the underdog Philadelphia Eagles. But the news had declared New England in ruin so many times that bettors favored the Pats anyway in a “boy who cried wolf” scenario.

It was the one time they should have listened to the pundits! Belichick benched star DB Malcolm Butler in a power move that offended some players before the opening kickoff, and the Eagles won after Brady fumbled in the 4th quarter.

Several things can affect line movement, but understanding more about how it works can help you as you place bets on both the NFL regular season and the Super Bowl. We’ve put together a betting guide below that’s packed full of even more helpful and free Super Bowl betting tips.

Tips on Taking Advantage of NFL Line Movement

Read below for some pointers on how to take advantage of timely bets when NFL line movement takes the NFL odds in a favorable direction.

Determine If the NFL Line Movement Makes Sense

Is the movement in a point spread, moneyline, or O/U market logical and based on real-life factors that affect the game on the field? Or is it just a product of recreational betting, team/player popularity, and the like? Determining the answer is the key to betting successfully.

Obviously, silly stories in tabloids will be ignored by most pro athletes. But look beyond the headlines for the real factors. After looking carefully at the line movement and injury reports, consider the other reasons why NFL line movement may be valid on a given Sunday.

Have you checked the weather? It’s true that NFL offenses are so well-timed in the modern era that a little precipitation or cold won’t hurt them. But when the weather for an outdoor game is primed to be extremely good or extremely bad, meteorologists will often know several days in advance. Make sure your pick isn’t a team that depends on good (or bad) weather at home and is suddenly without it. Conditions that are favorable to or that hamper the kicking game, for instance, are a valid reason for an O/U total and even a point spread to move.

How about the road team’s travel itinerary? It’s well known that NFL squads from the west coast can struggle in midday kickoffs in New York or North Carolina – after all, they’re playing in the middle of their own “morning.” But what is talked about less often is that the phenomenon vanquishes less-motivated teams with bad records more often than playoff contenders. A westerly franchise with everything riding on a Week 16 trip to Buffalo will often rent out a wing of a resort-hotel just to let players adjust for a few days while attending one-a-day training sessions in the rival city.

If you think there’s a less-substantial reason for the NFL line movement, like a spread tilting toward the more popular of two teams, and you have double-checked all of the pitfalls, then you might just have something. Bet confidently once the angles are covered.

Betting Late in the Week

It’s extremely important to time a wager well when betting against the public. A sportsbook may increase the “vig,” or house percentage, on one side of a spread or O/U total, hoping to balance out the action. As the house takes more and more precautions to level off the popular betting market, lines can stabilize or move back toward a more logical number by the weekend.

Therefore, the best time to wager on lines that have moved sharply is Friday night, when most of the world is relaxing and not yet making last-minute bets. Bettors getting in on the NFL action between Monday and Friday tend to be thinking more about the teams, while that anteing-up on Saturday and Sunday morning tend to be thinking more about the odds.

Belong to More Than One Sportsbook

Sportsbooks and odds-managers are all different in how they handle uneven betting action, and of course, each NFL betting site’s clientele has its own habits.

Therefore, lines at one NFL sportsbook might not change much at all, while another sharply moves the lines for the same game. Having accounts at more than one book can be tricky, but it pays off big-time when multiple lines (and twice as much NFL line movement) give the bettor more options.

Conclusion: Think Independently to Win on NFL Line Movements

Remember that fans and bettors alike are wishful thinkers. It’s human nature to hear “WRs Smith and Jones are healthy for Sunday” and go bet 3 units on the ‘over’ while disregarding any less-fun news like “Defensive tackle boosts defense” that might inspire a bet on a lower score instead.

Because public betting action can turn so sharply, and so fast, watching for NFL line movement is one of the best weapons in a successful gambler’s arsenal.

Don’t join the mob! Look for ways to exploit the lines when the public pulls them out of the bookie’s firm grasp. You might just profit while everyone else is out of luck.