How to Bet on the NFL: 10 Tips for Beginners
Robin Alam/Icon Sportswire. Pictured: A detailed view of a NFL Kickoff logo.
Everybody bets the NFL. Yes, even your dentist.
But I’m sure your dentist doesn’t win money betting the NFL and you might not either. Whether you’re a new bettor or a recreational bettor who wants to take betting the NFL more seriously, there are many small things you can do to improve your return on investment (ROI).
I’m going to go through 10 things novice bettors should know before jumping into the NFL. I’m not going to get into specific matchups, situations, schemes, coaching, or any other on-field factors. Rather, these are basic rules for you to follow in order to improve your NFL betting bottom line.
10 Tips for Betting the NFL
Click the links to jump to each section.
- Don’t Overreact
- Don’t Chase
- Avoid Parlays
- Stop Buying Unnecessary Points
- Only Tease When it’s Wong
- Shop Around
- Respect the Market
- Don’t Forget About Live Betting
- Track Your Bets
1. Don’t Overreact
The NFL regular season only has 256 games and is the most widely covered and talked about sport in the country. Naturally, there will be an abundance of hot takes each and every week. You’ll see this after Week 1, even.
As a general rule of thumb, teams that dominate one week are usually not as good as they looked. And vice versa with teams that get blown out.
This is the NFL. Every team is uber-talented, and the gap between the best and worst teams isn’t as big as you think. This isn’t college football, where a school like Rutgers that’s completely devoid of talent never has any chance against Ohio State.
On a related note, final scores and basic stats can be very misleading. There are plenty of tools and sites out there that can help you filter out a lot of the noise and adjust for opponents. For example, a team may put up 400 yards a game, but take 80 plays to do it. That’s not nearly as effective as 400 yards in 50 plays.
We have our NFL power ratings which seek to do just that. You can also look at metrics such as DVOA on Football Outsiders in addition to the abundance of advanced metrics available on the Internet, from PFF to Sports Info Solutions.
Also, don’t overreact when it comes to your results. If you go 5-0 one week, that doesn’t mean you have it all figured out and should go overboard the following week. I mean you have about a 3% chance of going 5-0 by having your dog pick five games for you at random. Don’t get too high and stick to your process.
Similarly, don’t get too down after a bad week. Every bettor in the world has very bad days, weeks and months. You will also have days where you get supremely unlucky. It’s just going to happen. Don’t dwell. It’s easier said than done and a learned skill over time with experience.
And that leads me to the next tip.
2. Don’t Chase
If my little sister picked my NFL bets for me over the next 20 years by using a dart board, I would simply juice out. Without any knowledge, she’d expect to hit around 50% over a big enough sample size using her dart board. The market is pretty efficient, so every point spread on either side is about a 50/50 proposition.
I would lose money as a result of the vig but would end up losing a lot less than most bettors.
How is that possible if anybody can pick 50% over time? Well, a lot of it can be explained by cognitive biases, bad bet sizing and greed. Behavioral finance 101.
Casual bettors especially get into trouble when they chase, which happens a lot in the NFL. It’s sometimes too tempting to avoid the Sunday Night Football game for most recreational gamblers. And after a very bad day, many give into the temptation to bet way over one’s head in order to get back to even or make up for that unlucky loss.
On the flip side, some also do this after a big winning day and let it all ride to double up on the Sunday or Monday night game. You’re likely only going to get yourself into trouble doing this, which is why you really should ideally bet what you want for the day before the day starts until you really know what you’re doing.
It’s also another reason why I recommend beginners to flat bet until they have experience, find out they have an edge over time and can quantify that edge in order to inform their bet sizing in a rational manner.
On a related note, don’t drink and bet.
3. Avoid Parlays
A 12-1 parlay payout looks extremely enticing to casual bettors, but just know you’re giving the house an 18.75% edge if you assume all four games are coin flips. Compare that to just 4.75% for a regular coin flip wager at -110 odds.
Look, if you simply want to throw in a parlay as a pure entertainment lottery ticket, be my guest. But if you want to start taking betting more serious, just stop. Learn from most of us who did nothing but bet exotics when we first started before learning better. I remember personally losing my shirt betting pleasers (reverse teasers) when I first started betting back in high school. Cringe.
Parlays can actually be effective tools for professional bettors to leverage up their edge in certain cases. However, they will almost always just erode the bottom line of less advanced bettors. Don’t get wooed by the massive payout parlay tickets that hit and get shared on social media. NFL is hard enough to beat without giving away that much edge.
If you want to play the lottery, you could just go buy a lottery ticket at the gas station.
4. Stop Buying Unnecessary Points
Buying points requires you to pay more money (and therefore increase your breakeven percentage for that bet) and weigh that against how often buying that point will help you.
Almost always, it’s not worth it.
Even if you have the option to buy a half point for just 10 cents, it’s only worth considering if you’re doing so onto or off of a key number that hits with a greater than 5% frequency.
Don’t even let it cross your mind for numbers that aren’t 3, 4, 6, 7, 10 or 14 — your key numbers.
For example, buying a favorite down from -9.5 to -9 makes absolutely no mathematical sense on any planet. Well, maybe they play a version of football on another planet where field goals are worth triple. But if we’re talking American football, it’s a losing proposition.
Yes, you’ll inevitably lose a 9.5-point favorite that wins by nine at some point, but I promise buying points in that situation will hurt you more than it helps you over the long run. A nine-point margin of victory has happened less than 2% of the time in NFL history.
The six numbers I mentioned above are the most widely known key numbers, but only margins of 3 and 7 have consistently occurred at a greater than 5% frequency (the breakeven rate for paying 10 cents for a half point) over all significant time periods in NFL history.
That means you should pay 10 cents to either take a favorite down from 3 or 7 or an underdog to 3 or 7 or over either number. It’s closer to a breakeven proposition for the others but that could change over time with the new extra point rule.
For your reference, here are the margin of victory frequencies since that rule change since 2015 through the 2019-20 season:
Buying on or off of the 3 makes the most sense of any key number. Games have consistently finished with an exact margin of three points at least 10% of the time in every historical period, which implies it’s worth paying up to 20 cents in the following four circumstances:
- Take a 3-point favorite to -2.5
- 3.5-point favorite to -3
- Take a 2.5-point underdog to +3
- 3-point underdog to +3.5
However, we really should focus in on games with a spread between 2.5 and 3.5 to get the most accurate percentage, since that’s when you would would think about buying on or off the 3. In our Bet Labs database, games with spreads between 2.5 and 3.5 have been decided by exactly a field goal 9.3% of the time since 2003. Not quite worth paying 20 cents but fairly close to breakeven and definitely worth 15 cents, which means give the choice of Ravens +2.5 -110 and Ravens +3 -125, you should choose the latter.
It’s a little more complicated than this but a good general rule of thumb I tell beginners: only consider buying a half point for up to 15 cents when it comes to the 3 or 7.
You’re probably falling into a loss aversion trap when you buy points in order to avoid losing by the hook. But that’s not logical and will hurt your profits. It’s simply not worth it.
You can also apply this same logic to full game totals as none hit at a high enough rate to make the buy worth it. Based on our historical NFL data from 2003-17, 41 was the most frequent number regarding total points scored at 3.9%, followed by 37 and 44 (3.8% each). No number came up above the 5% breakeven point for paying 10 cents for a half point.
5. Only Tease When It’s Wong
You actually can have an edge by blindly teasing two teams in the NFL in certain situations.
In order to break even on a six-point teaser at -110, you need teams that have a greater than 72.4% chance of covering after being teased (which moves the spread six points in your favor). If we look back in our Bet Labs database, all NFL regular-season spreads since 2003 covered 69% of the time if teased six points. Nice, but not nice enough.
The story changes if we filter for all teases that would’ve captured both the 3 and 7, which are known as “Wong teasers” as a nod to Stanford Wong, who famously first pointed these out to the masses.
NFL regular-season underdogs between +1.5 and +2.5 and favorites between -7.5 and -8.5 have covered exactly 75.0% of the time, which clears the aforementioned 72.4% hurdle rate.
But some books have smartened up and no longer offer six-point NFL teasers at -110. (Believe it or not, some shops used to offer them at even money.) So, if you can only bet a six-point teaser with -120 odds, do you still have an edge teasing through the 3 and 7 on both sides of an NFL teaser?
Assuming the past is a fair indicator of future results, the answer is yes.
In order to break even on a two-team, six-point teaser at -120 odds, you need to clear a hurdle rate of 73.9%. And as I showed above, we’re at 75.0% dating back to 2003.
It’s not the greatest edge, but it is even larger if you go farther back in time — although you’ll run into potential non-stationary issues since the game has changed so much.
Regardless, try to find a book with the best possible odds for your six-point teasers; -120 is the maximum you should ever consider. For example, if you only had the option of betting a two-team teaser at -130 odds, it wouldn’t make sense, as the hurdle rate with those odds is 75.2%.
Also, don’t tease totals.
6. Shop Around
The easiest thing you can do to improve your edge is to have access to multiple books. This is common sense and just takes a little effort. Find new outlets and ensure you are always taking the best price available to you.
Luckily, our live NFL odds page will give you the best line at a legal book no matter what you want to bet.
Don’t be lazy and just bet at the book you are logged into. Betting the Steelers moneyline +130 at one book you’re logged into instead of betting them +132 at another may not seem like a big difference, but it adds up over time. Plus, why give away free money? It’s hard enough to win at sports betting. Don’t make it harder on yourself.
7. Monitor and Respect the Market
This might be a little more advanced, but you should always keep your eye on the betting market. Over time, you’ll pick up some important tendencies that make you a more informed bettor.
Let’s say you are waiting throughout the week for a 6-point underdog to hit +7. You will obviously want to check in on your books periodically during the week. (Plug: you can also set up alerts on the Action App).
Now, what if the line blows through +7 and goes to +8. That’s great news, right? I mean you can now get the underdog at +8. Well, not necessarily.
Maybe there’s an injury or suspension you haven’t heard about. Or maybe there was a very respected group of bettors that loves the favorite and got down a sizable amount. As a beginner, you shouldn’t just ignore those moves.
Watch the market as much as you can and then reach out to a more experienced bettor and ask questions. Ask lots of questions. Seek out a mentor, which can be invaluable. Don’t be shy.
8. Don’t Forget About Live Betting
Live betting continues to become more prevalent with each passing day. Most bettors should now have access to live betting at one book or more and it’s a tool you should be utilizing.
Let’s look at an example. If you wanted nothing less than Eagles +7 all week and it never gets above +6.5, don’t just settle for +6.5 because you want the sweat. Pull up your account(s) and get ready to fire if that +7 (or better) ever pops.
Plus, hunting for your desired live number can provide a sweat in of itself. The chase can be just as fun as the sweat.
9. Consider Specialization
The NFL is one of the most efficient sports betting markets in the world. Almost every casual sports bettor is wagering on the NFL on Sundays. But more importantly, so are some of the sharpest bettors and syndicates. It’s not easy to beat.
What can be easier to beat is more specialized markets, such as player props (hint: look to bet unders). Betting player props is not a sustainable business model for bigger bettors due to limits and restrictions that come along with beating them over time. However, they should still be considered by beginners as a way to increase your bankroll when first starting out.
Our Player Props tool at FantasyLabs uses industry-leading projections to find edges in the props market.
You also might want to look beyond NFL to other sports to find a niche. You’re probably more likely to find an edge with something like live hockey totals or second half college basketball lines than you will when it comes to the NFL market.
10. Track Your Bets
How else are you going to know if you’re any good without actually tracking the results. This really goes for all sports and one of the reasons why we created the Action App. You can even do this before wagering even money to determine if you can win and where you strengths and weaknesses lie.
Now, specifically regarding NFL betting, it’s actually tougher than most sports to determine if you have an edge since it takes longer to actually bet a significant amount of games to give you any real insight.
You could easily get very lucky (or unlucky) for a season and assume you are much better (or worse) than you might be. One way around this dilemma is to measure your closing line value, which should be very telling in the user-efficient NFL market.