The important thing to remember in betting the NFL is that, to a certain extent, you are betting on the numbers as much as the team. Being guided by emotion, or even by on-field knowledge, has to be combined with an understanding of what the numbers are saying.
That’s because the key mainstream NFL bets revolve around the spread or the margin of victory, as it’s also known as. If you take a favourite giving three points, you win only if they win by more than three (if they win by three, no result). You may be a fine judge of which team is better, and more likely to win, but the real question is by how many points they will do it.
You may feel the Dolphins are a mortal lock a game against the Patriots in Foxborough, but if Miami is getting 13 points, you have to ask yourself if the Patriots are a full two touchdowns better.
Understanding the spread is crucial, and there are a few key points of which you should be aware. First, home-field advantage ain’t what it used to be. Since the merger with the AFL in 1970, home teams have won an average of 56% of the time, though the number varied between 51 and 63 year-by-year (it’s never dropped to evens). Last year, it took a late rally by home teams to end the year with 51.7% of the wins.
There are various theories: official replay negates the effect of the crowd on officials; salary caps mean good teams find it harder to be consistently good, and often need the first six weeks of the season simply to get their new cast to gel.
Home advantage differences
Weather gets worse in some cities as the season progresses: the biggest home advantage over the past twenty years belongs to New England, followed by Baltimore, Green Bay, Pittsburgh and New Orleans. All but the Saints in the north, and the Saints have one of the league’s loudest home environments.
So home field used to be worth an automatic three points (meaning a home team favoured by three was basically considered equal to the visitor, not better). It’s likely worth less nowadays, so pay attention to the circumstances.
Don’t be fooled by the size of the spread. I had a friend last year who wasn’t going to bet an underdog, but did when the spread moved from 7.5 to 9. I warned him to consider the difference.
The most common margin of victory in the NFL is three points, in about 16% of games. Something like 45% are decided by seven or fewer. The median margin is 9, so my friend should have been alright, but consider: how do you score nine? A touchdown is 7, a field goal 3. A TD and a very rare safety? In other words, nine may be the median, but it is relatively meaningless as the actual margin, which is much more likely to be seven or ten.
You can bet games straight up win or lose, but the odds will not be generous, which is why people usually combine a number of straight-up picks into one bet. Usually you can also select different spreads, usually at less favourable odds, unless they’re considered extremely unlikely.
The other most popular bet is the over/under, betting on whether the combined points for both teams will be over or under a certain total. This is one where you can factor in bigger-picture analysis. Here you need to understand the nature of each team’s game: their proclivity for scoring points for a lead, and ability to protect it. And you need to understand circumstance.
A good defensive team like Buffalo last year, playing in cold, windy, snowy conditions against almost any offense, is going to produce a low scoring game. Against a team like the Patriots last year, even better defensively, and worse than people though offensively, going under was a lock.
Current status of Arrowhead…looks like we got ourselves a snow bowl pic.twitter.com/DrYTB6nfsu
? The Checkdown (@thecheckdown) January 12, 2019
A clever way around the over/under is also to see if bets are offered on the first half, especially with high scoring teams that like to play from the front.
My favourite bets involve individual performances: yards accumulated by runners, passers or receivers, touchdown scorers, leading tacklers, things like that. Guessing a first scorer is as difficult as it is in most sports, but there are players every season who rise above the 50% marker, that is, more than eight TDs in a season. These bets tend to be offered in greater numbers in the playoffs, when there are fewer games.
Oh, and when the NFL goes to its new playoff system, they may do away with the biggest home-field advantage you could find: the divisional championship round, where the top two seeds played at home against the wild-card game winners. Here the ‘better’ team, based on season’s finish, gets home field advantage, plus an extra week to rest, get healthy and prepare. Those games produced about two-thirds home winners, but they will disappear in the new format this season.
Be sure to check out the other volumes in our Betting Masterclass series, listed below:
Volume 1 – Ed Hawkins on Test Match Cricket
Volume 2 – Ed Hawkins on Twenty20 Cricket
Volume 3 – Ed Hawkins on how to bet on ODI Cricket
Volume 4 – Mark O’Haire on the football stats that don’t matter
Volume 5 – Mark O’Haire on benefits of data and beating the closing price
Volume 6 – Mark O’Haire’s perfect football punt checklist
Volume 7 – Steve Rawlings on how to make golf tournament bets
Volume 8 – Tony Calvin on how he makes racing profitable
Volume 9 – Kevin Blake on the importance of the skill of race reading
Source: US Sports