NFL Point Spread Explained

Its popularity comes from the level playing field that it creates between favorites and underdogs, changing the way we watch the game. NFL point spreads are synonymous with NFL betting.

NFL LA Rams Cooper Kupp

Rams' wide receiver, Cooper Kupp was one of the league's best in 2021 © Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

NFL point spread key takeaways

  • NFL point spread betting gives the perceived weaker side in the game a headstart of a specific number of points.

  • The spread can be in whole points, making a tie possible or with a half point included, which guarantees a winner when the spread is applied at the end of the game.

What is an NFL point spread bet?

In the 2022 NFC Championship game, the Los Angeles Rams were 3.5 point favorites as they were playing in their home stadium and considered to be more accomplished team than their opponents, the San Francisco 49ers.

Home field advantage in the NFL is currently considered to be worth between 2 and 3 points though this is not a written rule, making the Rams around a point superior side to the 49ers at a neutral venue.

Both the spread and the odds offered might be different at various books and at different times in the buildup, as weight of money and sentiment ebbed and flowed in the NFC Championship game.

Los Angeles Rams-3.5-106
Cincinnati Bengals+3.5-112

The 49ers settled at -112 with a handicap advantage of 3.5 points compared to the Rams’ -106 under the same spread. The game was closely contested, but the Rams edged the game by 20-17.

A handicap win for the Rams would have returned $9.43 of profit to a $10 stake, but although outright losers on the day, the 49ers rewarded those who backed them with the cushion of a 3.5 points start to the tune of $8.93 again to a $10 stake.

NFL point spread betting

The NFC Championship game gave a masterclass in how point spread betting can enhance the usual money line betting, where a side may be an unattractively short priced favorite.

The Rams were priced at -182 simply to beat the 49ers and advance to the Super Bowl, requiring a stake of $182 to be risked to return a $100 profit, with an implied winning probability of 64.5% .

The first objective of a spread is to bring the sides much closer to a coin toss odds compared to the price for a side to merely win the game. The NFC Championship spread achieved this aim, with the SF 49ers “winning” by just half a point after the 3.5 points had been added.

More obviously, the spread gives an equitable betting opportunity to both teams even when the game appears to be a large mismatch.

When the very best of teams plays the very worst, points spreads can be upwards of 17.5 points, which gives a big underdog, perhaps on an upward curve, a real chance to cause an upset against the spread playing a dominant team who may go in to the game with one eye ons future challenges.

The importance of half points was also highlighted in the NFC Championship game between the Rams and 49ers. 15% of games are won by 3 points, the value of a field goal and without the extra half point, the betting result would have been a 20-20 push with stakes returned.

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How to bet on the NFL point spread

In spread betting, you have two options: the favorite or the underdog. The favorite will be displayed with negative odds, which is a minus symbol (-) followed by a number (-5.5). The underdog will be displayed with positive odds, which is plus sign (+) followed by a number (+5.5).

Spread betting sounds confusing, but it really isn't. If the Los Angeles Rams are -3.5, they need to win by six points or more to win the bet. If the San Francisco 49ers are +3.5 on the spread, they can’t lose by more than five points to win the bet. If the spread numbers are both 5.5, there is no middle ground for both teams to win/lose.

Using the above example, if we wager $100 on the Los Angeles Rams (-3.5) with odds of -110 and they win the game 27-21, we would profit $90 because they won by six or more points. If the spread was -6.5 and they won the game 27-21, we would lose our $100 wager because they didn’t win (cover) by seven points or more. At -3.5, winning by 4 points or more is good and winning by 3 points or fewer is bad.

With underdogs, it’s a little different. If we wagered $100 on the 49ers (+3.5) at -110 and they lost the game 27-21, we would lose our $100 bet because they lost by six points or more. If the spread were +6.5 and the 49ers lost 27-21, the +6.5 would win (cover) because the Giants didn’t lose by seven points or more. At +5.5, losing by five points or fewer is good and losing by six points or more is bad.

American odds can be confusing, but our odds calculator can help us determine how much we’d win based on the amount we wagered.

American odds always use $100 as a default stake too, but NFL point spread bettors can bet any amount they feel comfortable with and is within their limits.

1. Look through the NFL games and choose the one you want to bet on

DraftKings NFL pointspread screenshot 1

2. Pick your team to back: will it be the favorite or the underdog?

DraftKings NFL pointspread screenshot 2

3. Click on the bet slip at the bottom, set your stake and place your bet

DraftKings NFL pointspread screenshot 3

What do plus and minus odds mean?

The -106 odds for the Rams to cover 3.5 points in the NFC Championship game quickly gives you an idea about the bet you are contemplating. The negative sign tells you that you will need to stake more than your potential profitable return. The -106 means you must stake $106 to make a profit of $100, in addition your stake is also returned, if successful.

By contrast, had the odds been prefixed by a + sign, then your returned profit would exceed your stake.

For example, +104. The + sign before the 104 means you are betting an event that has an implied probability of below 50%, and the 104 is the amount of profit in dollars you will receive if you stake $100.

The spread set is strongly related to the money line odds and then sentiment moves either the spread or the odds available about the two sides.

However, the only objective in the NFL is to win the game and unlike other sports, points differential is irrelevant to the final standings. Therefore, you may feel that some teams, in some circumstances may win by the bare minimum, whereas other coaches are happy to rack up the score, even when the game is comfortably won.

Either can be a betting angle.

Key points are also important to understand, as in the Championship game, the scoring system has a big influence on winning margins. Three and seven points occur more often, even with the emergence of the 2 point extra point option.

Why bet the point spread vs the moneyline?

NFL Aaron Donald LA Rams
Points spread betting makes wagers more interesting in games where there is a clear favorite and underdog © Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

A choice between moneyline betting, where a side merely needs to win the game, even by a single point or handicap, and point spread betting which bring the teams closer together, is partly down to betting temperament and the ability to find a profitable angle.

Typically, the two markets are related. A strong favorite will also be likely to win, on average by a hefty margin.

The Buffalo Bills hosting Atlanta Falcons in week 17 were priced at -890 on the money line, where you need to stake $890 to profit by $100, and were asked to cover a two touchdown, 14-point, spread, which was be priced at a more palatable -110.

The game ended in a 29-15 win for Buffalo, but a 29-29 push on the handicap.

Sometimes this generic conversion may not fully account for the way a leading team manages the game. Also, you may feel more comfortable betting $110 to win $100 at -110 on the spread compared to $890 to win the same $100 on the money line. Even though the long-term returns will be similar.

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NFL point spread FAQs

What does a +7 spread mean?
Are NFL points spreads accurate?
Why bet on negative odds?
What is betting the spread?
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Mark Taylor

Football data analyst

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