NFL Spreads Explained

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Najee Harris #22 of the Pittsburgh Steelers. Ethan Miller/Getty Images/AFP

The point spread, seldom liked, often cursed, and reviled on Thursdays, Sundays, and Mondays from September through early February, with a few Saturdays mixed in. For new football bettors, the point spread can be and is confusing.

For everyone else, it can be a blessing, salvation, or the most distasteful thing you will witness all week. This point spread can be like Robin Hood, taking from the rich and giving to the deserving or it could be like a bank robber.

Let’s examine what it is and what it does.

What Is the Function of a Point Spread for Betting Football?

Oddsmakers at sportsbooks are hired experts whose job is to set a line or point spread that will attract betting action on both sides of a given contest.

For example, if the Baltimore Ravens were playing at their hated rival Pittsburgh Steelers, the point spread might look like this: Baltimore +3.5 vs. Pittsburgh -3.5. This tells us the Steelers are favored by 3.5 points playing at home.

If you use the accepted notion that an NFL home-field advantage is worth three points (-3) that suggests Pittsburgh is ever so slightly the better team over Baltimore, with their greatest advantage playing at home.

The ideal situation for any sportsbook is to have the amount of money split down the middle in any one particular game. Why? Because any spread has “juice” or “vig” added to it, which is sportsbooks cut for taking your bet. That is why the above example would officially look this way:

  • Baltimore +3.5 (-110) vs. Pittsburgh -3.5 (-110)

Your job as a football bettor is to beat the NFL odds to make you money.

Should You Bet Favorites or Underdogs to Beat the Spread?

Most gamblers will take the favorite because they have a higher expectancy to win and they are most comfortable with that thinking.

To become a wiser football bettor, figuring ways to back the underdog make the most sense because you have two chances to win versus backing the favorite where you have two chances to lose out of three outcomes.

By backing the underdog, you can win with an outright upset or by taking the points. This is not to say you have an inherent edge by doing so as the favorite will frequently cover the spread. The right answer to beating the books is finding – The Correct Side – no matter if it’s a fave or dog.

But long term, if you can determine an edge in backing the right underdog, you will have a chance for a larger profit over the course of the season.

Understanding the Juice and Payouts

One common misunderstanding newer football bettors make is assuming if you bet $100 and win, you will receive $200 back.

With sportsbooks profit built-in, if you wager $100 on a football bet, if correct, you will have a profit of $90.91 (plus your original $100 back). If you expect to win $100, your actual wager will be $110 (which would be the stated odds as listed above.)

Sometimes, on a key football number like 3 (three points is the most common outcome for the NFL), a sportsbook might not want to go to say +3.5 (-110), believing they are giving bettors an unnecessary advantage and will instead keep a favorite at -3 and add more juice.

  • Original Line: Favorite -3 (-110) vs. Underdog +3 (-110)
  • Updated Line: Favorite -3 (-120) vs. Underdog +3 (+100)

In this version, it will cost you $120 to make a $100 profit. On the underdog, this is an “even” money bet where you bet $100 to make $100.

What Happens When Lines Are Adjusted?

New NFL bettors should realize point spreads move all the time. Oddsmakers generate the market, but the public sets the market. So if Team A climbs from -3 to -5, is that perception correct? You’ll find out when the game ends.

When Is the Best Time to Bet on a Line That’s Been Altered?

That depends. When you are new to betting on the NFL, you should do your work to determine if you want the favorite or the underdog. If the line moves two points in this instance, do you still feel the same way about placing the same wager?

If not, don’t think like you have to make the bet because you are telling yourself you don’t see the same “value” in making that wager. It is best to wait and see if the number goes back or is at least close to the number you originally liked. The best part is you can always pass.

Enjoy this process of betting learning and be like a sponge, always reading up on information to make yourself a wiser bettor.