NFL Spread Betting (AKA Against The Spread AKA ATS) Explained

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Spread bets, are amongst the most frequently placed wagers on NFL games and a great place for recreational bettors to get started. Spread betting (or betting ‘against the spread’, as it is sometimes referred to) serves the notion that no two NFL sides are equally matched when they step on the field and there will always be factors that increase the likelihood of one team defeating the other.


To account for this, sportsbooks apply a points handicap designed to level the playing field between the favorite and the underdog. This is known as the ‘spread’ or ‘line’ and is essentially an estimation of how much the oddsmakers expect a team to win or lose by.


By applying this handicap, the sportsbooks entice a more balanced mix of wagers on the favorite and underdog, rather than the vast majority of bettors just picking the moneyline favorite and sending the sportsbook broke!





To understand how betting against the spread works, let’s take a look at the above matchup between the Houston Texans and Cleveland Browns. 


In this instance, we can see that the Browns are projected as -13.0 points spread favorites (who would’ve thought we’d be saying that a five years ago when they went 0-16!), as indicated by the negative number. The Texans are the +13.0 underdogs, as indicated by the positive number. This is essentially saying that the odds makers have given the Texans a 13-point head start, because they believe this is the margin the Browns are expected to win by.


In basic terms, if you bet on the Browns to cover the spread, they would need to win the game by 14 points or more for your wager to be successful. If you bet on the Texans with the spread, they would need to lose by 12 points or less (or win the game straight up) for your bet to hit.


If the Browns win by exactly 13 points, this is known as a ‘push’ or a tie and you’ll get the money you wagered back. Oddsmakers will often use half points when allocating spreads (e.g. -13.5 and +13.5) to prevent this from happening (if there’s one thing any true sports fan hates, it’s a tie!). 


The -110 odds alongside the spread numbers in the example above indicates both outcomes are deemed equally likely by the bookmakers and would net $91 profit on a $100 bet. For a more detailed explanation on how this was calculated and how to calculate other NFL odds, click here.


It’s important to note that the spread set by sportsbooks (and the odds accompanying them) can be altered in the lead up to games. They are designed to encourage a relatively equal level of betting on both sides of the ledger and will be adjusted for this purpose. For example, if the weight of betting was in favour of the Browns, the sportsbooks might increase the spread to -14 to encourage more people to bet on the Texans.


Another thing to factor in when placing spread bets on NFL games, is the scoring system used for NFL games. Considering a touchdown with successful extra point is worth 7 points, and a field goal is worth 3 points, the bulk of NFL fixtures finish with a margin of either 3, 6, 7 or 10 points. These numbers are certainly worth noting when betting against the spread!


For example, there is a significant difference between betting on a favorite to cover a minus -6.5 spread (i.e. a touchdown with extra point) versus a minus -7.5 spread where a touchdown and a field goal (or two-point conversion) are needed to cover the spread.


For more hints on what to look out for when gambling online to win real money on the NFL, check out our Bet Basics tips and strategies for NFL betting.



The biggest points spread ever assigned for an NFL game saw the Payton Manning-led Denver Broncos start as -28 point favorite against the Jacksonville Jaguars in 2013. The Broncos won the game 35-19, but the 16-point margin meant they did not cover the spread.


If reading this article has helped your decision to place a spread bet on the NFL, then you’re also probably interested in trying to maximize your profits by finding the best odds for that bet, right? We recommend having accounts with multiple sportsbooks so you can always conduct an odds comparison and make the most of any NFL bet bonuses or promotions being offered. Before you join any sportsbook, visit our exclusive Bet Basics list of 100% licensed and regulated legal sportsbooks. You'll find exclusive bonus codes that will give you more bang for your buck. 

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