How to Bet on the NFL (2021 Beginners Guide for Football)

The National Football League is the most popular pro sports league in the United States. NFL football is the favorite sport of nearly 40% of the US population, with the average NFL game drawing 15.4 million viewers, several million more than even the most popular network TV shows. Average live attendance hovers around 67,000, almost three times the average draw of a Major League Baseball game and double the average crowd at a Premier League soccer match.

Learning how to bet on the NFL means learning about the types of bets commonly used for pro football games. Brushing up on NFL betting strategy would be a good idea, as would practicing basic bankroll management techniques. It also wouldn’t hurt to stay current in terms of game and player news and performance trends.

Types of NFL Bets

US football bettors typically wager in one of three betting formats – money line bets, point spread bets, and game totals (over/under) bets.

You’ll also find NFL futures bets and other wagers collectively known as proposition bets or props. These are wagers on individual outcomes or player performances and tend to come with longer odds than the standard big three betting types.

Below is a brief guide to each of these three popular ways to bet on NFL football games.

NFL Money Line Bets

A money line is a basic set of odds that’s easy to read and interpret. It’s the preferred odds listing for most American sports.

NFL bettors who wager on the money line are betting on the outright winner of a particular game. Oddsmakers evaluate both teams and set a favorite, an underdog, and a price for betting on each. The goal is to set a line that attracts equal money on both sides.

Here’s an example of what an NFL money line looks like:

Indianapolis Colts            -210
Pittsburgh Steelers         +170

Let’s break down how to read these simple odds.

First of all, it’s easy to determine which team is home and which is away, as the home team is always listed on bottom. We also know that the Colts are the away team, and we can tell that they’re favored to win, since their money line is marked with a minus symbol. Now that we know Indianapolis is the favorite, let’s consider Pittsburgh. The plus sign in their money line indicates that they’re the underdog.

Now for the money lines themselves. The number next to the favored team tells how much you have to wager in order to win $100, in this case $210. The underdog Steelers’ money line indicates the total payout for a successful bet of $100 on Pittsburgh, in this case $170.

NFL Point Spread Bets

Oddsmakers use point spreads for NFL games, a feature not available in all pro US sports. Point spreads are used to balance the bets on both sides of a contest, so that the oddsmaker protects profits for their sportsbook. The point spread itself is the book’s best guess at the eventual difference in points between two NFL teams.

Here’s an example of an NFL point spread:

Cincinnati Bengals +5 @ Washington Football Team (-110)

Automatically, we learn which team is home and which is away, and we can see who’s favored and who is the dog. Since the book predicts Cincinnati will fall 5 points shy of beating Washington, we can say that the Bengals are the underdog to home team Washington. For point spreads, the home team is listed at the end, after the @ symbol.

A successful bet on the Bengals means that the team either won outright or lost by fewer than 5 points. Likewise, a successful bet on Washington means that they won outright by 6 points or more. Both bets require a bet of $110 for every $100 paid out, with the extra $10 representing the book’s juice on losing bets.

NFL Game Totals Bets

Game totals bets are sometimes called “over/under” bets. Sportsbooks set a point total, and bettors wager on whether the real score will be over or under that level.

Here’s an example of what an NFL game totals bet may look like:

New England Patriots     O38.5 (-110)
Philadelphia Eagles         U38.5 (-110)

Here, once again, the Eagles are hosting the Patriots. However, we don’t care who wins when we place a totals bet, just how many points are scored. A bet on the Patriots in this case is a bet that the total number of points will exceed 38. A bet for Philadelphia is a wager that the two teams will fail to score more than 38 points combined. Again, the (-110) number indicates how much bettors must pay for every $100 of potential winnings.

NFL Betting Strategy Guide

Bettors refer to the act of comparing teams or opponents as “handicapping.” Handicapping is a dark art in a lot of ways, mysterious, with practitioners loathe to share their secrets or teach anyone what they’ve learned. Good handicappers are worth more than their weight in gold. It’s a rarified and difficult skill. These skills aren’t taught on a basic informational webpage like this – they’re acquired, sharpened, and honed over time.

That doesn’t mean you can’t use sound strategic advice right away to improve your NFL betting win rate. We won’t offer you “can’t-miss hot tips” or whatever, because all of that stuff is nonsense and distracts you from sound bankroll management and betting practice.

The four tips below will help you remain confident through the football betting process, and confidence is a huge part of enjoying time spent placing sports bets.

  1. Be cautious about widely available betting advice.

A crowd, acting as a crowd, thinking as a crowd, tends to make worse decisions than any individual member of that crowd would. In sports betting, there’s no such thing as “the wisdom of the herd.” There’s no rule that says you can’t win a sports bet if you bet on the side of the general public, but you’ll find that over time there’s no money to be made making chalk picks week in and week out.

We advise bettors spend time identifying smaller-scale info sources, eschewing the mass-market Fox Sports or ESPN content blaring in every barbershop in the nation. Find an NFL betting podcast that gives you insight not available to every Johnny Sports at the bar. Read blogs by math-and-sports nerds that nobody else knows about.

  1. Take advantage of football’s relatively slow pace.

Newcomers to NFL betting are lucky in that the NFL schedule lends itself to slow and methodical study and practice. Compare the NFL’s one game a week to the rigorous schedule and frantic pace of Major League Baseball, where teams often play 6 or 7 games weekly.

The shortest turnaround on the NFL schedule is four days, and that short week situation only happens to a couple of teams each week. That’s four days’ worth of time to compare matchups, to shop for improving lines, and to implement your general betting strategy. You can usually start seeing lines after the previous week’s games, late on Sunday night. If your team doesn’t play until the following Sunday, you’ve got a full seven days to work your magic.

  1. Place regular and predictable NFL bets.

Newcomers should plan their regular season wagers well ahead of time, using the same size of bet to wager on a specific number of games.

One traditional way to set your standard bet size is to divide your total gambling budget for the regular season by the number of weeks of play. As of 2021, that’s eighteen weeks of bets. If you set aside $1,000 to bet on the NFL this season, you’ve got a unit bet size of $55 per week. I’d round that down to $50 for convenience, then decide if I want to bet one or two games each week. If you’re new to the NFL, you should place no more than one or two wagers on a week of NFL play.

During the regular season, place exactly the number of bets you decided on in the exact unit bet size you determined. Record your bets, your wins and losses, and any other notes about the week’s wagers. This information will be useful to you in future seasons, and we find that the magic of keeping track of all bets also helps bettors stay calm and avoid betting on tilt.

  1. Get control of your emotions and practice patience.

Gambling is a form of entertainment. The time you spend placing and tracking sports bets is supposed to be fun. Bettors who maintain self-control and approach the hobby with patience tend to get more value for their dollar. Bettors who get upset easily, wager outside of their budget, or bet to chase losses simply aren’t enjoying themselves.

Practicing self-care is an important part of enjoying betting on the NFL. Maintaining an even keel emotionally can prevent betting mistakes. Accepting losses and moving on to your next wager is as important as shopping for lines or handicapping teams. The more relaxed, realistic, and in the entertainment mindset you are, the better value you’re getting for your bets.

Conclusion

Not only are NFL games the most popular in-person and on television, they’re by far the biggest draw at American sportsbooks. Placing bets on the NFL is a kind of tradition, a pastime passed on through the generations, as much a part of the game as tailgating and outlandish face paint.

Placing NFL bets successfully requires a lot more than the basic information provided on this page. Anything you can do to increase your game knowledge or handicapping abilities is a good idea. Learning how to bet on the NFL starts with learning the basics of selecting and placing a bet. Improving your win-rate will require more advanced study.