Among all sports in North America, professional football is king. It draws in the largest TV audience, the largest live audience, and the most gambling action of any of the professional sports. The sport’s championship game, the Super Bowl, is the most wagered-on event of the year, especially true if you include all the social betting like office pools and friendly wagers.

The types of lines and odds used for wagering on the NFL are common to many sports. Bettors familiar with basketball or baseball betting will recognize the point spreads and exotic options immediately. The difference between pro football odds and those for other sports lies in the way to read them and apply them to an NFL-specific betting strategy.

NFL Betting Basics

One of the most appealing features of the NFL for sports bettors is the extended period available for preparation between contests.

Teams sometimes play after a “short week,” but even in those rare cases, punters have four days’ worth of research, handicapping, and line shopping before they decide to place a bet or not. With some online oddsmakers starting to offer wagers on NFL games as early as the final Sunday of a previous week, bettors on pro football can take a more relaxed approach to their betting strategy.

In some cases, a game’s odds may not be released until later in the week if there is a controversy big enough to make oddsmakers take a “wait and see” approach – an injury, a potential league penalty, a change in the coaching staff, or some other major lineup trouble.

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Types of NFL Lines

The four most common types of NFL bets are moneyline, point spread, game totals, and parlays. Each require slightly different strategy and betting style. Additional bets are available – especially popular are exotic bets such as which team will win a kick-off, which team will get the first interception, etc. These bets are generally high-risk propositions best avoided by newcomers to NFL wagering.

Moneyline Bets in the NFL

Sportsbooks release moneyline odds in a format that evens the playing field statistically. Moneylines are easy to read and understand at a single glance. They’re one of the most popular ways to wager on pro football.

To win against the moneyline, the bettor just picks the team that will win outright. Oddsmakers handicap (or evaluate) each team against the other by attaching odds for the team expected to win as well as the underdog. For sportsbooks, this difference in odds creates a desirable balance on either side of a proposition.

A moneyline example:

Indianapolis Colts -210
Houston Texans +170

In this example the Indianapolis Colts are favorites in a game at Houston against the underdog Texans. The home team will always be listed at the bottom, the favorite will always be listed with a minus symbol, and the underdog will always be indicated with a plus symbol.

The numbers indicate either (a) the cost to win a $100 payout, for a bet on the favored team, or (b) the return on a $100 wager placed on a winning underdog. A winning wager worth $100 on Indianapolis costs $210; a $100 bet on the Texans to pull off the upset would pay out $170.

Point Spreads in the NFL

A point spread is another way oddsmakers try to create a balance of bets on both teams in a given NFL game. This number represents the difference in points the book believes one team will win or lose by, depending on if they’re the favorite or the underdog.

A point spread for an NFL game may look like this:

Denver – 13 @ Oakland

Here, the oddsmaker has decided that Denver is the favorite to beat home-team Oakland by 13 points. For bettors on Denver to win, the Broncos final score has to be 14 points or more than the Raiders’. If the Raiders get the upset win, or lose by fewer than 13 points, wagers laid on the underdog would be winners. Should the Broncos beat the Raiders by exactly 13 points, the wagers are push.

NFL Game Totals

Known as the “over/under,” a game total is an oddsmaker’s educated guess at the point total between two NFL teams. The book will set a number, for example “35,” and accept wagers on both sides of that number. Bettors who think the game will be more of a high-scoring affair wager on the “over,” while bettors who think the point total will be lower take the “under.”

Parlay Bets & the NFL

Another very popular method for wagering on professional football is a combination bet known as a parlay. Some consider these wagers “exotic,” in the sense that parlays can be bet in a way that offers a big reward for an equally large risk.

A bettor sets up a parlay wager by picking the outcomes of between two and twelve games in a single day of NFL action. The bettor gets to pick the size of the combination, with lower numbers of combined bets leading to lower payouts, and those winnings growing exponentially in size as more combinations are wagered on. A parlay only pays off if all of the outcomes chosen by the bettor are accurate.

Parlays get complex in the case of books that allow parlay wagering on three different sets of odds – the moneyline, the point spread, and the over/under. This is considered a type of “three-team parlay” at many online books, with a payout much larger than what a bettor would get from laying those three wagers individually. Unlike the other three individual bets, though, a loss in any of the three sections of the parlay means a loss of the total wager.

NFL lines and odds are much the same as those found for other pro sports, but the NFL’s unique characteristics mean that bettors should focus on different types of bets. The casual sportsbook customer can look at a moneyline and within a few minutes place a wager they understand and are confident in. Novice bettors, or those conservative with their wagering, should avoid the popular parlays or other unusual odds and stick with moneylines, incorporating point spread bets once they understand how to handicap the league more effectively.