NFL betting on footballIn NFL wagering terminology, every game has a favorite and an underdog. The favorite refers to the expected winner. In the NFL, this is the team that lays points, meaning that they will have to cover a certain amount in order to pay out on most bets.

The underdog is the team considered least likely to win – the opposite, and opponent, of the favorite.

In point spread NFL wagering, the underdog will be given points, and will be listed with a positive number next to their name. An example of this would be Cowboys +4.5 – this means that the Cowboys pay out as long as they don’t lose by 5 points or more.


In American odds, underdogs will be the team with the largest number beside their name. Here’s how a prime-time game between the Jets and Browns in Cleveland might look:

New York Jets +145

Cleveland Browns -170

All things being equal, the Jets might be the better team, but in this situation, playing on the road in prime time, a moneyline bet on the Jets pays out slightly better than one on the Browns. This makes the Jets the underdog.

In decimal odds, where profit is calculated by multiplying the stake by the odds, underdogs will have the higher number beside their name.

New York Jets 2.45

Cleveland Browns 1.59

In fractional odds, the underdog will usually have the greater number on the left of their fraction. Using our game as an example, the odds will look like this:

New York Jets 29/20

Cleveland Browns 10/17

In this game, a $20 bet on the underdog Jets wins $29, while a $17 bet on Cleveland wins $10. This difference can become even more pronounced when an underdog is up against a heavy favorite. Instead of facing the Jets at home, lets send Cleveland into LA to take on the Rams.

Cleveland 13/5

Los Angeles Rams 5/16

Now, a $5 bet on Cleveland wins $13, while a $16 bet on the Rams only wins $5.

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As seen in the second example, NFL betting doesn’t work that well when dealing with big discrepancies between favorites and underdogs. It makes little sense to risk $16 to only win $5 and it makes less sense to take the Browns in a game they will likely lose.

NFL oddsmakers bridge the gap by including a point spread and giving the underdog points.

Let’s give our underdog Cleveland 7 points and create new odds:

Cleveland +7 (-105)

LA -7 (-115)

The odds now resemble a closer game, with the favored Rams paying out slightly less than the underdog Browns. However, unlike moneyline bets, where the favorite always wins back less than the underdog, the point spread can sometimes pay out better to favorites.

Let’s give the underdog another half point and see what happens:

Cleveland +7.5 (-120)

LA – 7.5 (+100)

As you can see, LA now pays out better than Cleveland, despite Cleveland being the game’s underdog.


Like the point spread and over/under, there are a number of factors that go into determining favorites. A team’s recent performance and rank in the standings will be considered, as will their individual positional matchups and injury situation. When determining the spread, home field advantage is considered to be worth 3 points.

In Cleveland, our original game against the Jets might look like this:

New York Jets +3 (-110)

Cleveland – 3 (-110)

At the Jets home field in New York (or, more accurately, New Jersey), the teams could play using the exact same rosters, and the Browns would most likely be listed as small underdogs

It is worth noting that three points are just a general rule – certain teams see a bigger boost when playing at home while for others the benefit is less pronounced. The Seattle Seahawks get a boost from their crowd, the Atlanta Falcons do much better playing under a dome and the Denver Broncos are familiar with the high altitude.

It is also worth noting that the underdog doesn’t always pay out better than the favorite.

The favorite team is whoever is expected to win the game, regardless of the point spread. In one of the examples we used earlier, Los Angeles was a heavy favorite, even though they paid out better than Cleveland – the reason was based on the high 7.5 point spread they need to cover, not on their win probability.

In closer games, such as the Jets/Browns example, it is possible for the favorite to change mid-week. Let’s say the Browns open as -3 favorites on Monday, but Tyrod Taylor is ruled out on Wednesday. This is a considerable loss for the team, and would likely make them the underdogs.

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