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Betting NFL Totals

--by Rob Gillespie

With regards to football, the majority of action is placed on pointspreads and totals. In dealing with thousands of clients over the years, it is apparent to me that although just about every sports bettor understands and bets on pointspreads, there are still a lot that don't fully understand how to bet totals.

Arguably, there is no simpler bet than the game total. Simply add the score of the two teams together (including Overtime) and if it is higher than the posted total, the Over wins. If it is lower than the posted number, the Under wins. It doesn't get easier than that. However, unlike pointspreads, many new bettors have difficulty predicting outcomes for totals, either from lack of experience or just lack of knowledge.

Most football fans like to see Touchdowns and so the Over is always a popular choice for recreational bettors. This results in the totals typically moving up over the course of the week. However, professional bettors know this and bet enough Unders to keep bookmakers honest and the posted totals fair. A simple rule for betting totals though is to bet the Over early in the week and the Under late. This won't always work but if you track this rule over any length of time, you should see it holds up as a general trend.

There are other reasons that the Over is popular. One is the Overtime rule in college football. There is no limit to the number of points that can be scored with the NCAA's shoot-out overtime rules. Teams can play to a 7-7 tie through the first four quarters and then put up 3 Touchdowns each in Overtime to make the Over a winner. If the game is close in college, your Over bet always has a chance. Another factor is that with the Over, you can know your bet will be a winner early in the game (for example, you have Over 45 and the score is 28-27 at the Half). Under bettors never have the same luxury of knowing their bet is already a winner until the final whistle sounds.

Now lets look at some likely outcomes for totals. With spreads, we all know that 3 and 7 are key numbers and, to a lesser extent, so are 1, 4, 6 and 10 but with totals I am surprised how few bettors realize there are certain important totals to be aware of. I will readily admit that there are no major key totals to the same degree as 3 or 7 but it may surprise you to know that a total of 41 has already landed in 8 of the 102 NFL games played so far this year. That is 7.8% and makes it more likely to fall than a spread of 4, 6 or 10!

Here is a breakdown of the most common totals so far for the 2003 NFL season. (For the record, the average so far this season is just over 42 points per game. It is easy to see that many of these numbers are combinations of touchdowns and field goals. 41 can be the combination of 5 TDs and 2 FGs, 31is 4 TDs and 1 FG, etc.

  • 41 8 games 7.8%
  • 31/36 6 games 5.9%
  • 33 5 games 4.9%
  • 37/45/46/48 4 games 3.9%
  • 27/39/40/43/47/55 3 games 2.9%

There are two numbers that stand out historically. For the last 10 years, both 37 and 41 have landed over 4% of the time in the NFL, making them the most likely. The key point here is that most bettors quickly recognize the value in laying 3.5-points instead of 4, but not many recognize how much better Under 41 is compared to 40.5. Spend some time working through combinations of TDs and FGs and you will quickly see where other key totals (38, 40, 43, etc.) lie. This will help you spot value when shopping for totals.

Now, lets talk about handicapping totals. While I readily admit I don't have any magic systems or formulas for totals, perhaps I can give some direction on where to start looking. One simple system many bettors use is a simple average of the points for/against for each team. For example, the game next Sunday Night has Buffalo at Kansas City. The Bills games are averaging 19.7 points/game and the Chiefs are giving up 17.9. Averaging those out gives a Bills estimate of 18.8 points. The Chiefs are averaging 29.7 points/game and the Bills are giving up 15.7. Averaging those out gives a Chiefs estimate of 22.7 points. Thus a quick estimate of the total would be 41.5 points.

The system can be refined to break it down for home/away, indoor/outdoor, grass/turf trends etc. More advanced systems may take league averages into account. For example if team A scores 28 points per game and Team B gives up 26, the prediction looks to be 27 for Team A. But if league scoring average is only 24 points, this would be a match-up of an above average offense and a below average defense. Thus the prediction should be higher, right? One method is to start with the league average and add or subtract to it based on team stats. In this case, the league average is 24 and you could add 4 points for team A being 4 points above average on offence and add 2 points for team B being below average on defense for a predicted score of 30. Do the same thing for team B and you have a predicted game total. Play around with these ideas and hopefully you will find a system that works for you. There are lots of ways to handicap totals, and hopefully these very simple suggestions will act as a good starting point.

One caveat; always be sure to check the weather for any total you bet. Bookmakers take weather into account and so should you. Rain and snow aren't as big of factors as many people make them out to be as defenders are just as likely to slip as offensive players and one or two big plays can drive a total way up. Wind on the other hand is underrated (in my opinion) and forces teams to run more. This can eat up the clock and help lower total scores.

In summary, the total is a very important part of a bettors arsenal and one that not enough people take advantage of. Spend some time looking through the totals of all the NFL games and you will surely find some betting opportunities. I know the professional bettors sure do.

Now for a quick look at the week. It was a busy Thursday with three college football games on the board and game 7 of the ALCS. The book did very well when Clemson kept it close at North Carolina State but players had revenge when Colorado State covered the 6-points at home vs. Air Force. Bettors also did well when the Yankees came back to win...maybe there is something to this curse stuff after all. Friday was a slow day in the world of sports but the Louisville cover was a small victory for us.

Saturday saw players get off to a good start when Texas (-18) beat up Iowa State 40-19 but we had some revenge with North Carolina's home-dog-cover against Arizona State (-7). Stanford's cover over Washington State (-11) was also good for the book but players had their revenge with LSU over South Carolina. Tie-breaker went to the book with the biggest decision of the day when Virginia covered against Florida State. Bettors had the baseball game right although the Under took some of the sting out. USC/Notre Dame and Washington/Oregon State were two of the most heavily bet games of the day, but action was fairly balanced with players making a little profit on USC and the House getting it back on Washington.

Sunday had great handle! Dallas (-3) was a big early winner for players, but players also did very well with New Orleans (-3), Tennessee (-1) and Minnesota (-4). The book had a big win with the Bengals over Baltimore and New England over Miami. The late games were more in the book's favor with big wins on San Francisco and Chicago. Players had smaller wins on the Jets and Bills. The only really important total of the day was the Over in the Bucs/49ers game and that went to the House when the Tampa Bay offence took the week off. For the third game in a row, bettors had the right baseball team with the Yankees getting an easy 6-1 win.

Monday night was a great one for bettors as the public was all over the Chiefs. Professional bettors were on Oakland but the public got the best of this one. The low score was a saving grace for the House as it helped turn a profit on parlays and teasers despite the one-sided Chiefs action.

I'll be back next week with a look at betting on football Moneylines.

The enjoyment of your wagering experience with us is my number one priority. Should you have any questions, concerns, or comments, I will personally ensure you are satisfied with your BoDog experience.

Good luck with your wagers!

Rob Gillespie

This article courtesy of Rob Gillespie, President of "America's Sportsbook" Bodog exclusive providers of offshore odds for ESPN!

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