Watch the NFL long enough at a bar or restaurant and some stranger will ask you that question. Your friends should already know.
That stranger may or may not know what the spread means. You may even be that stranger. The first step in betting on football is to know what the terminology means. That means knowing things like spread, money line, and total. That means knowing the different bet types.
Let’s help you with that now, as you can reference the betting odds above to reinforce the topics we are discussing.
The NFL is the cash cow in the United States betting business. This is the most popular sport with the biggest handles on a game-by-game basis. The handle is the total amount wagered on the game, FYI.
Each sportsbook is going to have different perks, promotions, and reasons to bet on the NFL with them. Some of our favorites at BetMGM, PointsBet, BetRivers, DraftKings, and William Hill.
Each state also has different approved sportsbooks, so you’ll want to see what is available in your jurisdiction.
Spread betting is the default setting and the most popular bet type when it comes to the NFL. The spread is essentially a handicap placed on the game that attempts to even out the two teams. We all know the Kansas City Chiefs are better than the Jacksonville Jaguars. The goal for the sportsbooks is to figure out how big that handicap needs to be in order to balance the betting action on both sides as well as possible.
The favorite is denoted by a minus (-) sign, followed by the point amount that is the spread. The underdog is denoted by a plus (+) sign and then the point spread. For example, the Chiefs might be -14 against the Jaguars. Let’s say you bet on Kansas City. To determine a winner against the spread, you would subtract 14 points from Kansas City’s final total. If they would still win the game, then they “cover the spread” and you win.
If you bet on Jacksonville +14 and they lose by 21, then you lose your bet because your +14 points aren’t enough to make them a winner with the adjusted final score.
All spreads also include “vigorish” or “vig”, sometimes known as “juice”. The standard for spread betting is -110, but risk managers at sportsbooks will often adjust the vig instead of the spread in hopes of enticing more action on the side that they need in order to balance the bet counts. If one side moves to -115, the other side will move to -105 in most cases.
The -110, or 11/10, is a wagering tax called the “house edge”. If sportsbooks balanced bets 50/50 on both sides, they would book all that action for nothing. The 11/10 gives them a margin called a theoretical hold, in that they’d pay out less than they would take in if both sides were bet equally.
At -110, you would bet $110 “To Win” $100. You could also bet “To Risk” $100 to win about $91. This is true of any bet amount.
Think of Money Line betting as playing a pick ‘em, but with vigorish. With money line wagering, you are trying to pick the winner. The difference is that instead of the vig at -110 or -115 or something like that, the vig will often be much higher. On the other hand, the plus odds will be a lot higher.
A -3 spread favorite in the NFL might be -160 or -170 on the money line. The spread correlates to the money line and the money line is an implied probability of the likelihood that team wins the game. In the NFL, a 7-point favorite will win roughly 70% of the time, so the money line is related to that implied probability, which is somewhere around -300.
The larger the favorite, the more juice on the money line. With a -300 favorite, you would have to bet $300 to win $100 or you could do something like $100 to win $33.33.
On the plus side, literally and figuratively, the payouts are higher for underdogs. A -300 favorite would correspond to a +250 or so underdog, so you would win 2.5 times your bet amount if you bet the underdog money line and they pulled the upset.
Remember that money lines increase in size based on how big of a favorite or an underdog a team is.
Totals in the NFL are also a very popular betting option. These are pretty simple to understand. This is an over/under bet based on the total number of points scored by both teams. If the total is 52 and the game ends 31-20, then the combined score is 51 and that game goes under the total. If the game ends 35-21, there were 56 points scored and the game goes over the total.
Totals often have vig like spreads, so you’ll see a standard of -110, but you will see -115, -120, and usually as high as -125 before the total line itself gets moved.
Totals in the NFL generally range from the high 30s to the high 50s, depending on the teams involved. That is different from college football, which can get totals up into the 80s.
Props and futures are extremely popular in the NFL. Some are a combination of both, with things like season win total odds or full-season player performance betting odds. Prop betting can take place on a weekly basis with over/under passing yards, rushing yards, receiving yards, touchdowns, receptions, and things like that. Basically, if you get points for it as a fantasy football category, somebody has a prop bet on it somewhere.
Futures betting means things like odds to win the Super Bowl, conference, division, or individual player or coach awards like MVP, Rookie of the Year, and Coach of the Year.
Generally, the favorite for the Super Bowl will be around +400 or +500 and the longest shots will be much higher, upwards of +100000.
Derivative betting is very popular in the NFL as well. Some teams do really well in the first quarter with their scripted plays. Other teams are better in the second half when they make adjustments. You can bet on each quarter and bet on each half. Generally speaking, the derivative lines are fractions of the full game, so a spread of -14 might be -7 or -7.5 for the first half. A total of 52 might be 24.5 or 26.5 for the first half, depending on the teams, weather, etc.