Point spread primer for the BTSC Pick'em League

We are beginning a new season so let's get down to business! I am writing this article a while ago to provide some background on point spreads a.k.a. handicapping in the NFL.  We were waiting to post it but it may help you if you have questions on point spreads and the John Stephens Pick'em League (which will use spreads).

I sense that some people get confused picking point spreads so I will explain it a few different ways in the simplest way I know how. In the Table at the end of this post titled "NFL Football Lines Week One" you see a column with "Favorites" on the left and "Underdogs" on the right with a negative number like -4.5  listed in the middle column . This negative number is added to the Underdog's final point total. For example, Green Bay is a 4.5 point favorite over New Orleans. So, let's say the final score is Green Bay 27 New Orleans 23, just add the 4.5 to NO points and get GB 27 NO 27.5. This is a New Orleans win with the spread (or handicap). Now if the final score is GB 28 NO 21 then GB has covered the spread or the 4.5 points because adding the 4.5 spread to NO gives you GB 28 NO 25.5 so Green Bay covered the spread. You can also think of it this way, the score before the game starts is GB 0.0 and NO 4.5 (example thanks to worldtrip), so just add the final score to this starting score and you have the handicapped result.

Because home teams win on average about 58% of the time, usually home teams are the favorite and they are giving the away team the points. However, if there is a perceived mismatch where the home team is very bad then they will get points (a handicap) from the away team. You see this in John Stephen's Pool he is running at CBS Sports, when the home team is listed as negative number (-4.5) then they are the favorite and giving the visitors 4.5 points. But when the home team is listed as a positive number (4.5) that means they are the underdog and getting the points (handicap) from the visiting team. It's very simple if you think of it in terms of favorites and underdogs. Favorites have points subtracted, Underdogs get points added.

So, in the first week two teams getting 9 points (Vikings & Colts) and two teams are getting a touchdown (Bengals & Dolphins). Colts were only getting 2.5 points last week & 5.5 points earlier this week until it became known that Peyton Manning would sit. That news immediately moved the line from 5.5 to 9 points. Just in case you are unfamiliar with this type of table, the underdog is getting the points (add the point spread) or the favorite is giving the points (subtract the point spread). This is an either/or proposition, in other words you don't subtract points from the favorite and also add them to the underdog, do one or the other:)

At this time of year, Vegas has the same problem all bettors have, both are trying to feel out the real strength of the teams. Who was sandbagging? Who are the posers? We just don't know. We do know pre-season games are not a great predictor of the regular season and until we see a few weeks of regular season games we are all flying blind. With that said, there are a few trends that are tried and true, like home teams win 58% of the time.  Thus it follows that if a home team is getting a touchdown or more that is a good percentage wager.  And if a home team is getting 10 points, it is very hard to pass up because the odds should really be in your favor.

2010 Regular Season Win Loss Statistics

total 2010 games

home wins

away wins


home win%

away win%

home win% w/points

away win% w/points 

pushed game%










Please don’t get all indignant when you see the Steelers listed as underdog vs. the Ravens, usually Vegas starts the home team as a 3 point favorites when the teams are evenly matched. And there is no better regular season series than Steelers vs. Ravens, considering that during the last 5 regular seasons both teams have 5 wins each (3 home wins & 2 away wins). So it makes absolute sense that the home team (Ravens) is giving 1 point (listed below as -1) to the visitors (Steelers). Spread odds are not designed to give the "true" odds but rather attract equal money action to both sides. Vegas is all about balancing their books and these odds are designed specifically to accomplish that. Earlier in the week Ravens were giving 2.5 to 3 points but the spread is now 1 -1.5 points depending upon where you look. As we get closer to kickoff the spreads often get worse for the average bettor, most of the smart money was locked in earlier.

FYI, when no moneyline is listed on a spread bet, the implied moneyline is (-110) or for every $110 wagered your payout is $100. Now this means the vigorish or vig is $10 regardless of which team you bet on. However, a bookmaker may move the vig if his or her book becomes unbalanced (typically the vig moves no more than +/-5 on spread bets) they can change the moneyline instead of changing the spread. The Bodog moneyline for the Steelers +3 points is (-130)  and Ravens -3 is (+110), so to win $100 on the Steelers you must bet $130 but you have better than even money odds if you bet the Ravens (win $110 for every $100 bet). In other words, too much money was being bet on the Steelers +3 so Bodog gave a huge incentive to bet on the Ravens.

Vegas lines are designed to get equal action but they are also very good at removing the home field advantage, take for example 2010 regular season results in the table above. As you see, home winning percentage at 55.86% was 2.14% below the historical average of 58%. However, when you look at the home/away winning percentage with the spread there is less than a ½% difference. And even more amazing it equates to only one game out of 256. Home team covered 125 times while away teams covered 126 times. Only five games resulted in a "push" (tie), this is also important because all bets are refunded in "push" games.

In 2010, Vegas computer models essentially negated the home field advantage and came within one game of doing it exactly. Wow!  So if you think Vegas has no idea what they are doing I have news for you, these are the odds you are up against when you bet the field. As Katt Williams said so eloquently many times "ain't that a bitch!"

Now, if you picked all the games in 2010 by flipping a coin, you would probably be out about 10% of your money (beakeven except you lost the 10% vig) unless you are very talented or more likely exceptionally lucky. However, in football wagering just like in life you need to pick your spots. One sweet spot is when the home team is getting a touchdown or more. This only happened 11 times in 2010 but of those 11 games, with the spreads added the home team won 7 times for a 63.64% win percentage. Likewise, there were 22 games where the home team was giving 10 or more points and in this case home teams only covered 40.91% while away teams won 59.09% of the time. But in either of these cases you made money because to overcome the vig and earn profits you must win in the neighborhood of 56% of your wagers. So, if you want to be successful I suggest you find patterns such as these and ride them for all they are worth:)

I wish you luck in your football pools and/or your betting, either way football is back and that's a damn good thing! Here we go Steelers!


                      NFL Football Lines Week OneNFL Lines 9/8 - 9/12/2011


Date & Time Favorite Line Underdog
9/8 8:30 ET At Green Bay -4.5 New Orleans
9/11 1:00 ET At Baltimore -1 Pittsburgh
9/11 1:00 ET At Tampa Bay -1 Detroit
9/11 1:00 ET Atlanta -2.5 At Chicago
9/11 1:00 ET At Kansas City -6 Buffalo
9/11 1:00 ET At Houston -9 Indianapolis
9/11 1:00 ET Philadelphia -4.5 At St. Louis
9/11 1:00 ET At Cleveland -6.5 Cincinnati
9/11 1:00 ET At Jacksonville -1 Tennessee
9/11 4:15 ET NY Giants -3 At Washington
9/11 4:15 ET At Arizona -7 Carolina
9/11 4:15 ET At San Francisco -5.5 Seattle
9/11 4:15 ET At San Diego -9 Minnesota
9/11 8:25 ET At NY Jets -4.5 Dallas

                                       Monday Night Football Lines

9/12 7:00 ET New England -7 At Miami
9/12 10:15 ET At Denver -3 Oakland
Log In Sign Up

Log In Sign Up

Please choose a new SB Nation username and password

As part of the new SB Nation launch, prior users will need to choose a permanent username, along with a new password.

Your username will be used to login to SB Nation going forward.

I already have a Vox Media account!

Verify Vox Media account

Please login to your Vox Media account. This account will be linked to your previously existing Eater account.

Please choose a new SB Nation username and password

As part of the new SB Nation launch, prior MT authors will need to choose a new username and password.

Your username will be used to login to SB Nation going forward.

Forgot password?

We'll email you a reset link.

If you signed up using a 3rd party account like Facebook or Twitter, please login with it instead.

Forgot password?

Try another email?

Almost done,

By becoming a registered user, you are also agreeing to our Terms and confirming that you have read our Privacy Policy.

Join Behind the Steel Curtain

You must be a member of Behind the Steel Curtain to participate.

We have our own Community Guidelines at Behind the Steel Curtain. You should read them.

Join Behind the Steel Curtain

You must be a member of Behind the Steel Curtain to participate.

We have our own Community Guidelines at Behind the Steel Curtain. You should read them.




Choose an available username to complete sign up.

In order to provide our users with a better overall experience, we ask for more information from Facebook when using it to login so that we can learn more about our audience and provide you with the best possible experience. We do not store specific user data and the sharing of it is not required to login with Facebook.