Introduction to NFL Totals

Introduction to NFL Totals

The NFL and college football season is right around the corner, so if you are planning to bet some of those games, today is not a day too soon to start preparing. Taking a little extra time to learn what you need to know before the season starts will give you a big edge over the majority of bettors. Football fans are notorious for waiting until the day of the game to even have an inkling what their bets will be, only to wonder why, week after week, they are betting into inferior numbers and losing.

Many Games Are Best Left Alone

The handicappers in the newspapers may need to make a pick on all of the NFL games, but unless you are entering a football pool where a pick on every weekly matchup is required, you don’t. It takes a lot of discipline to forego betting on the game you know you will be watching on TV when it is not a good wagering proposition. But to stand any chance of coming out ahead for the season, not giving in purely out of habit is a must. There are also far too many college football games every weekend to warrant getting involved with more than a handful. The key to winning is to be selective. First you have the Fall of Fame Game kicking off 4 weeks of preseason games, then 3 months of regular season NCAA games and 4 months of regular season NFL games. Then, as if all that isn’t enough football, a whole lot more is on the way in the college bowls, NFL Playoffs, and Super Bowl!

Every NFL game, along with a large number of college football games, typically provides two basic types of betting options, the side (which of the two teams will cover the point spread) and the over/under or total bet (whether you think the total number of points scored by both teams combined will be over or under the designated number). Depending on where you place your bets, there might be many other betting options open to you such as money lines, teasers, parlays, bets on each quarter, and an entirely new point spread and over/under line bet for the second half of the game. But this article focuses specifically on over and under betting.

One nice feature about betting on totals is that you don’t need to concern yourself with which teams wins and which team loses and by how much at all. As long as the total number of points scored by both teams combined is greater than the over/under line if you bet the over or less than the over/under line if you bet the under, you are a winner. In other words, if the over/under line is 44 and the final score is 24-21 in overtime, the “over” bet is a winner, just as the “over” bet would also be a winner if the other team is on top with a final score of 42-3.

Depending on where you will be betting, you may or may not be able to place an over/under bet in advance of the day of the game. Either way, it is important to know what the opening total on the game was and the extent to which that number has fluctuated up or down since that time. You should also have more than one place to bet, if possible, so you can shop around for the best numbers. If the particular number you are looking for doesn’t seem to be available anywhere, which will frequently be the case, you need to decide ahead of time how far off the existing number can be from the desired number before it becomes unbettable. Let’s say the best over/under number available to you is two full points off from the number you were hoping to find. You may say to yourself since the two teams together will probably score more than 50 points, two measly points shouldn’t make a difference. The fact is, two points can make a big difference, and there will be instances where what might have been a good over or under bet at the original number turns into a no bet for the discriminating player at the new number.

How Over/Under Lines Are Determined

Long before you are able to “get down” on the games of your choice, professional line makers at big companies set the initial lines. Obviously, great care and precision, based on a variety of factors, must go into determining the numbers because ultimately, millions of dollars will be at stake.

Once a consensus is reached, the opening line for both sides and totals is released to sportsbooks. Individual sportsbook managers then have the opportunity to further fine tune their lines based on what their own experts think and/or early betting permitted by certain designated individuals whose opinions they value.

By the time an over/under line is offered to the general public, more likely than not, it will have moved multiple times. Then, as more money starts coming in on the game and reaches its peak close to game time, individual sportsbooks can and most likely will change their over/under lines again to reflect whichever way the bettors are leaning. By then, important updated information on conditions like injuries and weather may also be available, not only to the sportsbooks, but also to the public. Obviously, if severe weather is being forecast for the area where a game will take place, the over/under line will drop. But football players are accustomed to playing in all kinds of inclement weather, so a knee jerk bet on the under isn’t necessarily warranted. There is a big difference between the minimal impact a downpour in September might have on scoring and the major impact of a blizzard in December.

Many bettors are under the mistaken impression that line makers and bookmakers are actually predicting that team A is going to score x points and team B is going to score y points and the total number of points that the two teams together will score is x + y. Unlike the bettor, they really don’t care which team wins the game and what the score is. The purpose of the line is simply to divide the action so that, faced with a 2-sided proposition, a sufficient proportion of bettors (ideally 50%) choose each of the two possible options. If the betting is heavily skewed one way or the other, sportsbooks and private bookmakers won’t make a profit unless the public is wrong. If the betting goes overwhelmingly one way and the public is right, the cost to a small bookmaking operation can be crippling. But if the betting is balanced, which side covers the spread and whether the total number of points is a win for the over or for the under doesn’t matter. The bookmaker still makes a profit because every bettor has to pay a “vig” (short for vigorish) on the bet, usually at the rate of $11 to $10.

Smart Line Shopping

As a rule, if you can place your football totals bets early, do so. Totals are a lot more volatile than sides, and early money is usually sharp money. So don’t wait until the last possible minute when, in all likelihood, the number you were hoping to find will be long gone. The exception is when the way you want to bet is the opposite of the way the public is betting, which can sometimes wind up being profitable.

Nationalized TV games tend to attract a lot more action on the “over” than the “under.” After all, who wants to spend three hours watching a game where very little is happening. Furthermore, if you bet on the “under,” and the first couple of scores happen quickly, not only is rooting for neither team to score no fun at all; you will be on pins and needles for the rest of the game hoping the scoring pace slows down dramatically. On the other hand, statistically, the “over” is not always the better bet, and if you do bet the “under,” because you are bucking the public, you might get good value on the line.

Fortunately, not all “stores” post the same numbers and some are slower changing their totals lines than others. That is why if you are a large bettor having multiple places to play is imperative and small bettors, too, are strongly advised to line up alternatives and shop around rather than rely on one place exclusively.

How to Handicap NFL Totals

As a former sports advisory service operator, I frequently included NFL totals in my recommended plays for the week. I created my own offensive and defensive power ratings for every team, both home and away, which were continually adjusted and readjusted every week of the season. The resulting final score predictions then became the primary basis for my over/under selections. I knew I was usually on target because the vast majority of my numbers were within a point or two of the official Vegas numbers. Also, in the few games where the discrepancy was larger, closer to game day, the Vegas number became closer to my number. But every week there were at least a couple of games where I had a solid play on either the over and under, and these selections not only produced a high percentage of winners for my customers, but enabled me to win several national NFL totals handicapping contests.

If you are statistically inclined, you, too, might come up with your own way to predict NFL totals that is equally powerful or more so. If not, online research and/or a good sports advisory service can also steer you in the right direction. I recommend using the stats from the preseason as data to help you devise the power ratings for predicting totals in the regular season. However, because of all of the experimentation and adjustments taking place in different teams during the preseason, I do not recommend actually making any over/under bets until at least the first week of the regular season.


Art Aronson is a tenured bottom-line professional sports handicapper. He is the best ROI handicapper in the business. He is not your typical handicapper.

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