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Guide to NFL Handicapping


A friend of recently complained that he would never be qualified to try his hand at professional NFL handicapping. “All I do,” he said, “is look at the games and try to figure out which team has a better chance to win on the moneyline or point spread, and pick the best bet. That’s not really NFL handicapping, is it?”

Um, well, yes. Actually, it is.

In fact, most “armchair quarterbacks” who bet on The Shield probably do more Vegas-style analysis than they think when it comes to the weekly chances of teams in the NFL. Handicapping is not predicting, or more accurately, predicting is only part of successful handicapping. Yet when a bettor thinks, “I imagine that underdog has at least a coin-flip chance of winning,” they’re indeed taking part in NFL handicapping. It might not be the best NFL handicapping, but it’s a start!

As for getting it right most of the time? That’s just a little bit more complicated.

Let’s take a look at some keys to making successful predictions; analyzing franchises, teams, and match-ups; and a few other aspects of accurate NFL handicapping.

Determining a Team’s Value vs. the Spread or on the Moneyline

The first step to successful NFL handicapping is to determine whether a team is being undervalued or overvalued at the sportsbook and/or by the betting public.

While there’s no hard and fast rule that applies to every match-up, there are a few general considerations to keep in mind.

Remember that NFL betting sites try to “balance” their action, or bets taken on particular teams, to create a scenario where there are equal numbers of wagers on either side of a moneyline or a point spread. If the Cowboys and Redskins open at even, or “pick’em” on the point spread, and soon the Cowboys are a 3-point favorite, that means that the sportsbook has been booking more action on the Dallas side of the market.

NFL handicapping experts know that recreational bettors trend in certain directions. First, the public will tend to bet on favorites more often, even if the payoff on a winner isn’t all that great. People who bet for fun prefer to pick a winning team regardless of the potential payout.

That means underdogs will tend to pick up slightly more value in a sportsbook’s odds on the NFL. Handicapping an underdog properly means understanding that a 30% chance to win straight-up can still make a team a good pick on the moneyline if the ML odds are based on the club only having a 15% or 20% chance to win the game.

Also, recreational bettors will trend toward picking the “over” on a total-points line. It’s more fun to cheer for a pair of offenses to score points than it is to root for defenses to shut them down. That means if two strong defenses have at least a 50% chance to manifest a low-scoring game, chances are the “under” total points market will be the more valuable play, as the line is likely to be moving higher even if it should probably stay about the same.

NFL Handicapping vs. the Point Spread

Point spread betting is the most traditional market in which NFL handicapping and betting takes place. Spreads have been published in sports pages for hundreds of years as a matter of habit. It doesn’t mean that ATS betting is always the best way to go – but the markets do take in lots of action.

Betting against an NFL point spread means picking a team to prevail assuming a number of given points spotted to the underdog. A favored team must win by more than the point spread to cash-in the wager. Gambling on the underdog (marked with a “+” in front of a number indicating having been “spotted” the points) wins if the team wins straight-up or loses by less than the spread at the time the bet is taken.

A crucial aspect of NFL handicapping for point-spread picks is knowing coaches, franchises, and their tendencies well. It also pays to check the entire weekly scoreboard religiously.

A solid underdog might be expected to lose but may be on a trend of coming close in their losses. That means they’re potentially a good bet ATS even if they lack the leadership or finishing ability to put games away.

Remember that most recreational bettors do not stop to check the box scores of so-called bad NFL teams. They might see that San Francisco has an 0-8 record and figure that the 49ers’ 9th opponent will blow them out. In reality, they’ve probably lost a few heartbreakers.

Conservative coaches fare well as underdogs against the spread. Fans groan when a trailing team punts on 4th down and short, but it can help a team cover against a sizable spread. The New England Patriots are a team that would rather go down swinging in a 50-10 loss than play it safe and die in the 4th quarter. But the Pats are also rarely an underdog.

Home-field advantage is generally worth 2 to 4 points in a point spread.

Click on the link below to learn more about NFL point spread betting.

NFL Handicapping: Picking a Likely Moneyline Winner

The moneyline is a favorite market of the high-rollers and serious bettors out there.

Moneyline betting couldn’t be a simpler deal with the sportsbook – odds are set on which National Football League teams will prevail on Sunday. NFL moneylines are expressed in fractions relating to $100. An underdog’s moneyline or “ML” of (+200) promises a payoff of $200 on a winning $100 wager, while a favorite’s (-500) moneyline means the gambler must wager $500 to potentially win $100.

Some career NFL handicapping experts will create their own moneylines for each NFL game before looking at those released by the sportsbook, helping them to know which teams are undervalued.

Watch for line movement. Line movement is discernible by checking oddsmakers’ sites that track opening/consensus NFL odds versus the current lines at sportsbooks.

Some NFL handicapping gurus even suggest creating your own moneylines or point spreads the week prior to a game, before either team has played its prior Sunday contest.

That way, if either team plays “over its head” or has a bad day, your tendency will be to take a cold shower and view the teams on an overall basis, while the betting public gets caught up in the more immediate results and overreacts to them.

However, that tactic works best closer to the end of an NFL season (or NFL handicapping season, from our POV) because there is a larger sample size of a team’s performances to draw from.

If a typically-strong NFL team looks terrible and loses in Week 1, it could be a mistake to assume they’ll “return to normal” in Week 2. The bad Week 1 performance might be the new normal.

Find more about moneyline betting on the NFL at the page below.

NFL Handicapping: The Over/Under Market

As we mentioned previously, the “fun” factor in NFL betting action on the O/U (total points) leads to a slim majority of “under” bets winning when compared to “over” bets.

If an O/U line is moving upward, analyze the offensive and defensive units of both NFL teams and ask yourself if the changing point total is based on fan buzz and media hype or on something of actual substance (like defensive injuries or a team’s acquisition of a new kicker). Chances are good that the line movement is based in part on recreational and impulse-bettors picking the over.

However, if an NFL O/U line is falling, there is often a solid reason why. Perhaps a kicker is injured, or a starting QB took a bump in practice and is questionable to perform. Bad weather could also be a factor, or there could be travel concerns when a talented offense must fly from the west coast to the east coast for an early-afternoon kickoff.

When NFL handicapping on the O/U, try thinking of several potential final scores that the game might be likely to result in. Average out the point totals from each, and compare it to the bookie’s current total. If your personal O/U line is different by at least 3 points, you might have a valuable wager on your hands.

Remember that NFL totals are lower on average than college totals due to more-consistent defensive play throughout all 32 teams (at least when compared to “cupcake” FBS teams and below-average college defenses) and rules differences that tend to lessen the number of plays run in an NFL contest, such as the fact that an NFL game clock does not stop when a 1st down is converted.

Read more about NFL point totals and O/U betting by surfing to the below link.

More Factors in NFL Handicapping


The league has taken steps to try to regulate injury reports, but NFL teams – especially the New England Patriots – continue to be deceptive whenever possible. For instance, Tom Brady either was or was not significantly injured during the 2017-18 NFL season. He and his franchise are so secretive that bettors couldn’t get their hands on many non-rumor-mill reports on Brady’s bruises until the off-season.

Take care not to handicap an NFL contest differently due to an injury, unless A) the team has suffered so many injuries that depth becomes a big issue, or B) the injury is to a difference-making player. Most NFL starters are replaceable despite being household names in their communities. The next man up on the depth chart may have less experience but may be just as skilled athletically.

However, when a difference-maker goes down with a serious injury, NFL handicapping experts and casual fans can agree. The team is likely to suffer greatly and should be handicapped very differently until the star QB (or difference-maker at another position) comes back.

Special Teams

Special teams is an easily-obscured element of NFL handicapping that is nonetheless extremely crucial. If two teams score an equal number of touchdowns and attempt an equal number of field goals, the better place-kicker usually wins the game for his team. That goes double for an excellent returner or kick-return team that scores points or gives its offense excellent field position for 4 quarters.

Again, sample size is key. Just because a PK went 5-of-5 in Week 1 doesn’t mean he will out-kick Sebastian Janikowski in Week 2. But after 10 or 12 games with plenty of statistics posted, a match-up’s superior kicker (and superior special teams unit) can be discerned more easily.


In 2017, the Eagles beat the Giants by a combined 8 points in 2 games. Many armchair NFL handicapping enthusiasts probably felt that Philadelphia would beat New York a lot worse – after all, the Giants struggled for most of the year while the Eagles went on to win the Super Bowl.

But the pregame point spreads for each contest were tight. How did bookies know? Because the Giants and Eagles have a trend line that clearly indicates how hard the teams play against each other. Their games tend to be close due to the emotions and familiarity involved, just as Army and Navy tend to always have close games in their season-ending college football clash.

Take care not to handicap rivalry match-ups as blowouts unless one team looks to be on the verge of collapse (i.e., 1-2 quarterbacks hurt, head coach on his way out, etc.).

NFL Handicapping: The Weather Conundrum

Finally, remember that NFL teams are able to handle minor weather changes and precipitation without a hitch, thanks to the ability of modern wide receivers to get open in the rain and snow.

But that doesn’t mean the weather is never a factor. Some teams hate playing in extreme cold, especially if they’re from a warm climate. Miami wouldn’t want to travel to Seattle in December and play in a driving sleet storm – if that happens, the Dolphins should lose a few points in the spread.

Also, sometimes gale-force wind, heavy rain, heavy snow, or other extreme conditions can “double-cross” NFL coaches and play-callers who are used to ignoring the weather. They often continue to call a normal play-selection on offense even when conditions get so bad as to be comical, leading to an inept performance by the helpless players on the field.

The easiest “under” pick of all time was the Fog Bowl, a 1988 contest between the Bears and Eagles in which a shroud of low-visibility fog settled over Soldier Field in Chicago. Philly quarterback Randall Cunningham could not see more than 15 yards downfield. He was able to use the air conditions to bamboozle the blind Bears with quick, short passes but could not reach the end zone as Chicago won by 8 points in a bizarre 20-12 result.

Conclusion: NFL Handicapping Is a Learning Process for Everyone

If these tips and strategies seem like too much to take in at once, remember that even grizzled-veteran NFL handicapping wizards make mistakes every week. Nobody can predict the NFL with more than a slender margin of success – that’s the fun of it!

For more on NFL handicapping and betting strategies, click on the links below.