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Football Point Spreads and Totals

There are three primary reasons why so many people bet on football in the US. The first is simply that they love the sport and enjoy testing their knowledge by taking on the bookmakers.

The second is the fact that betting offers the chance to win some money from that knowledge.

The third is that it doesn’t have to be at all complicated. There are some really simple ways to bet on football without having to learn too much.

Out of all the different wagers that can be placed on football games, there are two in particular that are incredibly simple. These are point spreads and totals, and they are by far the most popular football bets.

In fact, the majority of people who bet on football exclusively use these two wagers.

If you’re new to betting on football, then these should be the first two wagers you learn about. With that in mind, this page will teach you everything you need to know concerning how they work.

We’ve also explained two specific techniques you can use to improve your chances of winning money from these bets: buying points and line shopping.

Football Point Spreads

Point spreads are popular wagers on a number of US sports: football and basketball in particular. The basic idea with these is that they are as close as possible to being even money propositions.

This means that, regardless of how strong each team is, a wager on either team has roughly the same chance of winning.

How is this possible? Well, the purpose of a point spread is to essentially level the playing field by making theoretical point adjustments to each team’s final score. For the purposes of betting, stronger teams are deducted points and weaker teams are awarded additional points. This might sound a little confusing at first, but the concept is actually a rather simple one.

Here’s an example of how a point spread betting market might look for a football game.

Steelers vs Bengals
Point Spread
Steelers (-3) -110
Bengals (+3) -110

The -110 next to each team are the odds. Although they’re not always -110, these are the standard odds for a point spread. They can be a little higher or a little lower, but they’re always pretty close to -110. They’re also usually very similar for each team.

As they do for any wager, the odds here determine how much a winning wager returns relative to the stake. In this case, a wager of $110 would return a total of $210. This is made up of $100 profit plus the original stake.

You may know all this already, but it’s important for us to explain odds and how they work for anyone that’s completely new to betting.

The other numbers you’ll have noticed are the -3 for the Steelers and the +3 for the Bengals. These numbers are what represent the spread. We can tell from this that the Steelers are the favorites for this game, as the minus symbol represents the fact that they’re effectively being deducted points.

The Bengals are the underdogs, as they’re effectively being awarded points. Please note, these point adjustments were designed for betting purposes only, and they in no way influence the outcome of the game.

In this case, the bookmaker has predicted that the Steelers should win the game by around three points. To place a wager, you have to decide whether they will win by more than that total. If you think they will, you’d back them on this spread. If you think that they’ll lose the game, or win by less than three points, you’d back the Bengals on this spread.

Let’s now look at a couple of hypothetical results for this game.

PSAT Score Image 1

The Steelers have won the game here, but only by two points. Anyone who bet the Steelers on the spread would have lost. This is because they failed to win by more than the three point spread. If you’d have bet on the Bengals on the spread, you’d have won.

Despite losing the game, they were within the three points allowed. This is known as “covering the spread”. Please note that if the Steelers had won by exactly three points, a wager on either team would be a push. This is basically a tie between you and the bookmaker that results in the return of your initial stake.

PSAT Score Image 2

With this result, the Steelers have again won. This time, though, they’ve won by more than the required three points. Since the Steelers have covered the spread here, a point spread wager on them at -3 would win. A point spread wager on the Bengals at +3 would lose.

Here are two more examples of point spread betting markets for football games. These highlight how spreads are different for different games, and also how the odds can differ as we mentioned earlier.

Seattle Seahawks vs Minnesota Vikings
Point Spread
Seahawks (-5) -105
Vikings (+5) -115
Green Bay Packers vs Washington Redskins
Point Spread
Packers (+1) +106
Redskins (-1) -117

Now, you might be thinking that it’s easy to back the right teams on the point spread. However, you would be wrong. Quite the opposite is true in fact, as it’s actually quite hard.

This is because the people setting these spreads (i.e. the bookmakers and their staff) are very skilled at predicting the likely outcome of games. They consistently set spreads which reflect the actual winning margins of games.

Sure they get it wrong sometimes, but they’re very close most of the time. For anyone who thinks they can make better predictions, all we can say is good luck.

The great thing about betting point spreads is that you don’t necessarily need to be better than the bookmakers. This is because you don’t have to make accurate predictions for every game. You only have to be able to identify the situations where you think a team is more likely to cover the spread than not.

It’s not quite that simple of course, but that’s the basic idea of betting point spreads successfully.

Football Totals

Totals are arguably the simplest wager of all. With these, you’re trying to predict whether the total number of points scored in a football game will be higher or lower than a specified number. This specified number is set by a bookmaker or betting site for each game, in the same way they set the point spread.

Here’s an example of a totals betting market, for the same game we looked at earlier.

Pittsburgh Steelers vs Cincinnati Bengals
Over 40 -110
Under 40 -110

As you can see, the odds are again -110. The same principles we discussed concerning how the odds relate to point spreads apply to totals too.

The other relevant number here is 40. This is what the bookmaker offering this market has predicted the combined total of the two team’s scores will be. You have to predict whether you think the actual score will be higher or lower than 40. If you think higher, bet the over. If you think lower, bet the under.

Let’s now look at the same two hypothetical results as earlier.

PSAT Score Image 3

The total here is 34 (18 + 16). So it’s gone under the bookmaker’s prediction. Those who bet the under would have won. Those who bet the over would have lost. Please note that had the total been exactly 40, it would have been a push. This means that your initial stake would be returned, no matter which bet you placed.

PSAT Score Image 4

This results gives us a total of 50 (27+23), which is over the bookmaker’s prediction. A bet on the under would have lost while a bet on the over would have won.

That’s all there is to football totals, so you can see why they’re considered such a straightforward wager. Making money from them is less straightforward though, as it’s not at all easy to predict how many points will be scored in a game of football.

Indeed, there are some people that say betting totals is basically just guesswork.

This isn’t true at all though. There are several strategies and techniques you can use to make informed judgments regarding totals. None of them are foolproof, but they can certainly assist you at finding good opportunities to make these bets.

Buying Points

The aim when betting on football is to find the best possible value when placing wagers. That is, in fact, the aim when betting on any sport.

Finding this value typically involves analyzing a wide range of factors that can affect the outcome of sports events, assessing the potential effects of those factors, and then trying to make accurate predictions about how likely any given outcome is.

This is certainly something you need to do when betting on football if you’re going to have a chance of long-term success. It’s also beneficial to know some other techniques that can help with finding value. One of these is buying points, which is a technique that can be used for both point spreads and totals.

The basic idea with these is that you can adjust the size of a point spread, or the relevant total, to give yourself a better chance of placing a correct wager. In exchange for such an adjustment, the relevant odds are also adjusted.

For example, let’s say you’re looking at a game where the underdog is +4.5 with odds of -105. You’re fairly sure they’re going to cover, but the margin is a little too tight for you. You decide that you’d be more comfortable with a slightly bigger spread, so you buy a point. Buying this point has the following effect.

  • Spread moves up to +5.5
  • Odds move down to -125

Now in order to win, the team you’ve selected can now lose by five points, whereas before they could only lose by four points. You’ve given yourself an improved chance of winning, and taken lower odds in return.

Typically, the effect of each half point you buy is a 10 point move in the odds. For some spreads, however, the move is greater. This is generally the case when moving spreads off of +/- 7 or +/- 3, as these are very common winning margins. As an example, let’s say you bought half a point on a team at -3 and -115.

  • Spread moves up to -2.5
  • Odds move down to -135

This only gives you a very slight advantage. You previously needed your selection to win by more than three points, while exactly a three-point winning margin would result in a push. Now, winning by three points would be enough for your wager to win.

You’ve made a big sacrifice on the odds though, as they’ve moved from -115 to -135. It’s therefore questionable whether this would be the right thing to do.

Many experts suggest that buying points favors the bookmakers far more than the bettors. There’s an argument for this for sure. However, we believe that it can be the right thing to do in some circumstances. We explain why in our article on buying points when football betting.

The Importance of Line Shopping

While the benefits of buying points may be debatable, the benefits of line shopping are most certainly not. This is something that every football bettor should do for every wager that they place, even for those who bet exclusively for recreational purposes.

Why? Because it can make a major difference to how much a bettor wins or loses over time.

Line shopping is super easy to do. It involves simply looking at the odds and lines offered by different bookmakers and betting sites and then placing your wager where the best value is available.

Take a look at the following table for an example of why this is a good idea. It shows the markets at three different betting sites for the same game.

Pittsburgh Steelers vs Cincinnati Bengals
Odds Team (Spread)
  • Betting Site A
    Pittsburgh (-3) +100
    Cincinnati (+3) -120
  • Betting Site B
    Pittsburgh (-3) +107
    Cincinnati (+3) -118
  • Betting Site C
    Pittsburgh (-3) +105
    Cincinnati (+3) -115

Let’s say you want to back the Bengals to cover. If you used “Betting Site A”, you’d have to risk $120 for the chance of winning $100. At “Site B”, you’d only need to risk $118 for the same potential win. At “Site C”, the required stake is just $115.

Not a big difference you might be thinking, but these kinds of differences over a lot of wagers can have a substantial impact on your overall profits (or losses).

Here’s another table showing different lines for another match.

Seattle Seahawks vs Minnesota Vikings
Odds Team (Spread)
  • Betting Site A
    Seattle (-5) -105
    Minnesota (+5) -115
  • Betting Site B
    Seattle (-4) -110
    Minnesota (+4) -110
  • Betting Site C
    Seattle (-6) -110
    Minnesota (+6) -110

In this case, it’s not so much the different odds that you’re looking at but the different spreads. If you expected Seattle to cover, would you prefer to take them at -4 or -6? Obviously, you’ve got a much better chance at -4, so shopping around in this instance would give you a more favorable wager.

It’s not just point spread lines that vary either. The same thing applies to totals lines.

Pittsburgh Steelers vs Cincinnati Bengals
Odds Totals Wager
  • Betting Site A
    Over 45.5 -100
    Under 45.5 -110
  • Betting Site A
    Over 45 -105
    Under 45 -105
  • Betting Site A
    Over 45 -107
    Under 45 -103

By shopping around for the best wagers, you gain a slight advantage in terms of either the total you’re betting against or the odds you’re receiving.

With the ease that online betting offers these days, there’s simply no excuse not to shop for the best odds and lines. All you need are accounts at a few different football betting sites, and then the willingness to spend time comparing their markets each time you bet.

Just make sure that you only use reputable sites, such as the ones that we recommend.


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