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NFL Totals Betting Strategy

Total score over/under betting is one of the three most popular forms of NFL gambling, along with moneyline betting and spread betting. Despite being quite difficult to do well, the concept is quite simple: Over/under betting strategy means picking how many total points will be scored in a game. The number provided as a line is the combination of both teams, and you simply pick: Over? Or under?

Naturally, in practice, the strategy gets a little more complicated, so I’ll explain over the course of this page.

Before I go into detail, though, I want to remind you that over/under bets are one of the most in-depth situations that you will find in NFL gambling. More than most other types, over/under wagers require that you have a complete and comprehensive vision for how you think an NFL game will play out.

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This page does not concern researching and determining what the outcome of a game will be: For more information on that, check out my general introduction page, which describes my three-stage NFL Betting Strategy. In short, to make over/under bets, I utilize a three-stage process: gathering information, utilizing checks & balances and visualizing the game.

Here, I’ll go beyond this general NFL betting strategy and provide the following details specific to over/under betting:

  • How total score over/under bets work and how to interpret the line
  • How to know when to place a wager on a total score over/under bet
  • How to find good value and make money in the long run with O/U bets

Let’s get started by talking about what an over/under bet is, and how the line works.

How Does a Total Score Over/Under Bet Work?

In my experience, over/under betting is one of the most common and enjoyable ways to gamble on the outcome of an NFL game. Across the nation and across the world, people tune in to NFL games – especially during the fourth quarter – to see whether their over/under bet will pay out.

A total score over/under bet is simply a wager placed on how high the combined score will be between the two teams. To explain, let’s take a look at some specific examples:

These examples come from the Wild Card round of the 2016/17 NFL playoffs: There were 8 games on national TV the weekend of January 7-8, and the gambling public was out in full force to stake their claim on one team or another to win, to cover the spread, or to push the total score one way or another.

These were the available total score over/under bets:

  • New York Giants @ Green Bay Packers: Over 44.5 (-115), Under 44.5 (-105)
  • Detroit Lions @ Seattle Seahawks: Over 43 (-110), Under 43 (-110)
  • Miami Dolphins @ Pittsburgh Steelers: Over 47 (-110), Under 47 (-110)
  • Oakland Raiders @ Houston Texans: Over 37 (-110), Under 37 (-110)

When I put up these sample over/under bets, a couple things become immediately apparent. First off, we notice that different from moneyline bets and spread bets, an over/under bet is a bet on one side of a line, not on an individual team. You can bet the over, or the under, but you can’t bet on one team or the other.

The other thing that you’ll notice is that there are odds attached to each outcome – each over or under. This reflects the golden rule of sports gambling: The goal of odds-makers is always to promote even action on both sides of a wager. Changing the odds to make wagers more or less profitable to gamblers is the way that odds-makers prompt even action on both sides of an over/under bet.

The four games listed above also demonstrate the usual range of over/under odds. In contrast with moneyline odds (which vary widely) and ATS odds (which will often go up to +/- 150), over/under odds do not vary much. Having 75% or more of the games show -110 on both sides is a pretty standard proportion.

And in these examples, the total score lines themselves (which a gambler may go over or under) are also very standard. If the distribution of total score over/under lines was a normal curve, then it’s likely the bulge of the bell would fall around the range of 42 to 47 – this is the range of lines that you will most often see for most NFL games.

Let’s think about what this means in practice. If a game has a total score of 42 points, this means that – on average – both teams contributed 21 points to the total score. This means the equivalent of three touchdowns per team, or six touchdowns total over the course of the game.

For a 60-minute game, this in turn means a touchdown for every 10 minutes of game time: Touchdown #1 on a team’s opening drive. Touchdown #2 with 3 minutes left in the first quarter. Touchdown #3 with 4 minutes left in the half. Touchdown #4 midway through the third quarter. Touchdown #5 with 10 minutes left in the game. And Touchdown #6 on the game’s final drive, within the two-minute warning.

Now, do all NFL games play out this way? Of course not. Not by a long shot. But the reason I give this simplified example is just to make the total score a little more tangible. Thinking about a 42-point total score over/under is a little hard to grasp at first. But when you break it down in the context of a real game, it becomes much more clear how to diagnose what a line means and what type of a game would provoke such a scoring pattern.

With this basic idea of how over/under bets work, let’s now look at when you should place an over/under bet, which is tantamount to knowing whether the odds offer good value.

When Should You Place an Over/Under Bet?

For some reason, NFL gamblers that are particularly keen on using hard statistics to decide when to place a wager seem to gravitate towards over/under betting. So to provide some hard statistics to this conversation, I would simply offer the numbers that I’ve assembled in my 15+ years of NFL gambling.

While it’s not profitable to look back too far into the past (as the NFL has changed dramatically over its history, and the introduction and widespread adoption of the West Coast offense has recently changed the landscape of scoring in the league), limiting our target range to the last 15 years of regular season and playoff football gives us plenty of data to play with – over 7500 games-worth, to be exact.

Over this span of time, the limits for total score lines have become fixed at 30 (for the lowest) and 60 (for the highest). Of course, just because odds-makers don’t post lines lower than 30 or higher than 60 doesn’t mean that games don’t end below or above these bookends. According to my data, roughly 1 in 7 games end up with a total score below 30, and roughly 1 in 8 games end up with a total score above 60.

It’s extremely important to keep in mind, however, that there is no magic statistical formula that will tell you whether or not a game will go over or under. There are a host of systems out there – like betting the under in divisional games and the over in non-conference games, betting the over if the game gets to 41 or 42 or 44 total points, betting the over in games played in below-freezing temperatures, and any number of others.

But once again, statistical systems must be taken with a grain of salt. During these same 15 years, during which so much statistical knowledge has become available about when to bet the over and when to bet the under, the actual record has remained almost exactly 50–50. As in all types of betting, the house will end up making sure that the odds even out.

This is why prudent over/under bets require an understanding of value. Value betting is generally defined as wagering only in situations when you feel very confident about what the outcome of a wager will be (i.e. you feel there is low risk) while at the same time you feel that the odds for a particular wager hold the potential for a nice payoff (i.e. you feel there is high reward).

The betting systems mentioned above are after precisely this type of value, albeit in a slightly misguided way. When a betting system points out some statistical anomaly about how often a particular set of situations has prompted a winning over or an under, it’s useful to note the conditions they reference, but this doesn’t mean you should take what they’re saying as law. Consistently finding value requires combining together a large number of different betting systems with a large number of situational factors.

Now at this point, you might be asking: But what are these factors? How do I know if I’m getting good value? The short and honest response is that I can’t possibly explain this to you in words, especially not in the course of one short page. Like I said above, there is no specific magic formula for you to follow, and if someone tells you that there is, they’re probably going to ask for your credit card information next. It takes skill, experience, and a certain amount of feel to find value, and this takes time to develop.

Having said this, I don’t want you to think that there’s nothing you can do to start making good value decisions, and learning for yourself how to make this a profitable part of your gambling repertoire. In the next section, I’ll dive into the specifics of finding good value for total score over/under bets.

How Do You Make Money with Over/Under Betting?

As I just stated, and as I explain in detail in my general NFL Betting Strategy page, NFL gambling is a skill, and it takes practice. Like any other skill, it takes time and effort to develop the intuition that makes you proficient and profitable. I’ve been employed for 15+ years as an NFL gambler, and one of the ways that I’ve been able to pull it off it by understanding that it’s not a get-rich-quick scheme. It’s more like a job.

With total score over/under betting, the single most important factor involved in making money in the long-run is being smarter and more disciplined at wagering only on good value bets. This is a skill that you will get better at the more often you do it. As you place more wagers, you’ll develop a feel for when there is good value to be found in a particular bet.

Don’t let yourself be suckered in by touts and sharps that will try to convince you that there is some set of numbers, some statistical formula, or some software package that will do the work for you to determine whether you should bet the over or the under, and is guaranteed to make you money 100% of the time.

(Even if they advertise something more realistic – which is to say, something closer to being correct 60% of the time – I would still turn tail and run as soon as they want you to whip out a credit card and pay them five easy payments of whatever.)

In total score over/under betting, there is no substitute for visualizing the entire game in your own mind. You need to actually count up – point by point, quarter by quarter, drive by drive, possession by possession – which team is going to score how many points when and why (take a look at my general NFL Strategy page for more info on this). Do this before you even look at the line, and you’ll have a baseline opinion to compare against.

Next, when you look at the line, make careful note of how different your personal decision on the total score is from the decision that odds-makers framed for the gambling public. You could be dead on (in which case, you’re probably right but there probably isn’t value) or you could be way off (in which case, you’re either right, and there is value, or you’re wrong).

Once again, there’s no exact science to knowing whether or not you are right (and the odds are different) or you are wrong (and the odds were right). The most honest thing I can tell you is this: the key to a good value bet is when you feel certain of a given outcome, while the gambling public and/or the odds-maker feels differently.

For me, I’ve come to a pretty good understanding with myself about when I’m probably stumbling into a good value bet and when I’m probably deluding myself. This isn’t something that I know factually, using statistics or logic, it’s just a feeling I have through years of experience. This is precisely the type of intuition that you can develop with enough time and practice.

Trust your gut, learn from your mistakes, and you’ll be well on your way to becoming a profitable NFL gambler.

Summary: NFL Over/Under Betting Strategy

Total score over/under betting is one of the three most popular NFL bets. The concept is quite simple: In a total score over/under bet, you pick how many combined points will be scored in a game between the two teams. More than almost any other type of NFL betting, over/under bets require an in-depth prediction for how the game will play out, for which I employ my three-stage NFL betting strategy.

Here’s an example from the Wild Card round of the 2016/17 NFL playoffs: New York Giants @ Green Bay Packers: Over 44.5 (-115), Under 44.5 (-105). Notice that an over/under bet is a bet on one side of a line, not on an individual team. Also, notice that there are odds attached to each outcome – each over or under. This is the way that odds-makers prompt even action on both sides of an over/under bet.

The odds for total score over/under wagers are pretty staid: you’ll often see odds of -110 on both sides of a significant proportion of the available total score bets. Most lines fall in the range of 42 to 47, with odds-makers never setting a line below 30 or above 60. However, the actual total score of games often falls below 30 or above 60, even though odds-makers don’t set lines in this range.

A key strategy for understanding the line is to visualize how a game might play out to yield that total score. For example, a typical line of 42 could mean 21 points per side, 3 touchdowns per team, which means 6 total touchdowns in a game. Six touchdowns spread over a 60-minute game averages out to one touchdown every 10 minutes of game time. This helps us visualize what the line of 42 means.

Over time, you’ll develop a greater feel for what the individual total score numbers mean, and you’ll be able to connect these abstract numbers with a tangible intuition about how offensively intense or how defensively stolid a given game must be in order to yield the total score that you see odds-makers list. This skill takes time and practice to develop, but it’s absolutely vital to turning a profit with O/U bets.

Even though there are a large number of statistically beefy betting systems available for picking total score over/under bets, the truth of the matter is that finding good value requires combining together a host of different factors – there is no magic formula. In simple terms, you are trying to find a situation in which you believe the outcome has low risk, but you also find the odds have high potential reward.

Naturally, finding good value in this way – the combination of low risk and high reward – is the goal of all gambling ventures (and all monetary investments, too). But in the case of total score over/under bets, there’s simply no shortcut to doing the work of visualizing the entire course of an NFL game, counting up the points, and comparing this to the line. If the line feels off, you just might have a good value bet.

In conclusion, take the time to develop your own intuitive skill for when the total score of a game will certainly go over or under the line posted by oddsmakers. It’s not easy, but I can tell you from 15+ years of NFL gambling experience that there are few more rewarding experiences to see the course of a game turn out along the narrative you envisioned. In any case, it’s certainly a ton of fun.