NFL Betting Against the Spread

Strategy Icon Ever since the point spread was first invented by Charles K. McNeil in the 1940s, oddsmakers have set a perceived favorite and underdog for each NFL game. By taking points away from the favorite—also known as “handicapping”—sportsbooks can create a seemingly even matchup between two teams, regardless of skill level, and the public must bet “against the spread.”

Against the spread or “ATS” as it’s commonly referred to, is a type of bet that essentially means you’re placing a point spread wager on a team in the NFL—or any sport—to “cover the spread” for a single matchup.

Picking the winning team does not factor into the betting strategy since the goal is to correctly choose whether the favorite wins by more than the number set by the oddsmaker or the underdog wins the game outright or loses by fewer points than the point spread indicates.

If you’re still a little confused; don’t worry—we got you covered. Below you’ll find numerous in-depth examples of everything associated with NFL ATS betting. In addition, we also include the best legal online sportsbooks offering NFL point spreads so you can shop for the best betting lines all throughout the NFL season.

Is It Legal?

Online NFL betting is not against the law according to federal law as long as the sportsbook is licensed offshore or licensed and regulated by a state government that permits sports betting. The sportsbooks listed below are in compliance with US federal gambling laws.

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Betting Against The Spread (ATS) Explained

To start, let’s breakdown what exactly an NFL point spread is before diving into how to bet against the spread. Here’s the opening spread for the Super Bowl 53 matchup between the Patriots and the Rams.

Super Bowl LIII - Opening Point Spread

  • New England Patriots +1 (-110)
  • Los Angeles Rams -1 (-110)

To create an even matchup, the sportsbook will subtract points from the perceived favorite and add points to the perceived underdog. So, for the point used, the first thing you’ll notice is that the Patriots are +1, the underdogs and the Rams are -1, which means their favored.

The number in the parenthesis is the odds and determines the amount of money needed to place the wager. Because sportsbooks like to keep the payouts close to even on both sides, the oddsmakers will shift the spread depending on how much money is bet by the public on one of the two teams.

This opening spread was posted right after the AFC Championship, so let’s fast forward to see how the public betting market reacted to line that was originally posted by the sportsbook.

Super Bowl LIII - Closing Point Spread

  • New England Patriots -2.5 (-110)
  • Los Angeles Rams +2.5 (-110)

As you can see from the closing point spread right before kickoff on Super Bowl Sunday, the Patriots went from a 1-point underdog to a 2.5-point favorite, and the opposite is true for the Rams.

Most sportsbooks said between 75%-80% of spread wagers bet against the spread for the Rams and placed on the Patriots, which resulted in the huge swing. After the spread moved, the line indicated that the Patriots must win the game by 3 or more points to cover the spread while the Rams could lose by 2 or fewer points or win the game.

As we now know, the Patriots would go on to defeat the Rams by a score of 13-3 in Super Bowl 53, which means they covered their 2.5-point spread by a 7.5-point margin.

Understanding The ATS Record

An NFL team’s record against the spread can either slightly differ from their seasonal record or be vastly different because its dependant on how much they win by and not simply whether they win or lose.

For this example, let’s compare Kansas City Chiefs overall record to their ATS record last season. Below is every game the team played during the 2018 regular season and playoffs, including the point spread, margin of victory, final score, and whether or not KC covered the spread.

  • Bold = covered against the spread
  • * = Push, margin landed on the spread, bets were refunded on both sides

Kansas City Chiefs 2018 season Against the Spread

  • Overall Record: 13-5
  • ATS record: 10-7-1

Regular Season

  1. @LA Chargers (+3.5) — W by 10, 38-28
  2. @Pittsburgh (+4.5) — W by 5, 42-37
  3. San Francisco (-6.0) — W by 11, 38-27
  4. @Denver (-3.5) — W by 4, 27-23
  5. Jacksonville (-3.0) — W by 16, 30-14
  6. @New England (+3.5) — L by 3, 40-43
  7. Cincinnati (-6.5) — W by 35, 45-10
  8. Denver (-8.5)  — W by 7, 30-23
  9. @Cleveland (-7.5) — W by 16, 37-21
  10. Arizona (-16.5) — W by 12, 26-14
  11. @LA Rams (+3.0)* — L by 3, 51-54
  12. BYE WEEK
  13. @Oakland (-14.0) — W by 7, 40-33
  14. Baltimore (-6.5) — W by 3, 27-24 OT
  15. LA Chargers (-3.5) — L by 1, 28-29
  16. @Seattle (-1.0) — L by 7, 31-38
  17. Oakland (-14.5) — W by 32, 35-3

Playoffs

  • Indianapolis (-4.0) — W by 18, 31-13
  • New England (-3.0) — L by 6, 31-37 OT

2018 Chiefs ATS analysis

When looking at both of the Chiefs results from last season, we can see that their overall record (13-5) and their ATS record (10-7-1) are pretty similar, but are also noticeably not identical.

Perhaps most intriguing is how the oddsmakers and the betting market trends began to overvalue KC as the season went on.

Prior to Week 10, the Chiefs had an identical 9-1 record in the standings and against the spread. However, starting with Week 10 and up until the Patriots defeated them in the AFC championship, the Chiefs compiled a respectable 5-3 win-loss record but were an abysmal 2-6-1 (covered-didn’t cover-push) against the spread over the same stretch.

In other words: When and who you wagered on largely determined just how profitable you were last season for wagering on the Chiefs matchups. Before Week 10, the Chiefs were a gold mine against the spread, but from Week 10 and going forward, their opponent had a far better return on investment ATS.

Betting Against the Spread Profit Calculation

Lastly, let’s cover how often you need to be correct in order to turn a profit when betting against the spread of NFL games.

As mentioned above, NFL point spreads are mostly given identical odds (-110) on both teams, and then the spread itself will shift based on how the market reacts. I say “mostly” because sometimes odds can vary slightly—like with (-115) on one team and (-105) for the other—but for the most part, it stays even (-110).

Technically, the -110 isn’t “even” since the sportsbooks’ juice needs to be accounted for, and after converting to an implied probability, we can see that the oddsmakers are giving both sides a 52.38% chance to cover the average point spread.

If the only point spreads you bet on -110, then you’ll need to have a greater than 52.38% win-rate against the spread in order to turn a profit. Anything lower than 52.38% will result in you losing money.

So, if you bet on the point spread for all 16 games of a single NFL team throughout the regular season, then you’ll need to cover the spread at least 9 out of every 16 games (56.25%) to make money while 8 out of 16 games (50%) will net you a lose.

At the end of the day, I’ll borrow and add to a quote from legendary Hall of Fame wide receiver Randy Moss. Just remember this when betting against the NFL point spread:

Anything over 52.38% is “straight cash, homey.”

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