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Key Numbers in NFL Betting

NFL football is the most popular betting sport in the United States.  It’s also the biggest boost to the bottom line of sportsbooks that service this clientele.  The conventional wisdom is that NFL lines are ‘so sharp’ there’s no way that you can turn a profit in the longterm.  That’s not really the case.  The part about NFL lines being sharp is correct but there’s no reason that you can’t be successful as a pro football bettor and handicapper.  The reason that so many recreational players lose money every NFL season is that they think like a ‘fan’ and not like a ‘bettor’.  One of our goals here at SportsInsider.com is to change that by providing insight into how a ‘sharp’ NFL bettor approaches the challenge.  There are any number of factors that we’ll address in the future but we’ll start with what might be the most important NFL handicapping concept of all.

If you listen to experienced and successful NFL bettors for any length of time you’ll no doubt hear the term ‘key number’ repeatedly.  And with good reason—understanding what key numbers are and why they are significant is an essential component of successful NFL betting.  One major difference between how pros and recreational players can be explained with just one sentence:  Recreational players bet teams, pros bet prices.  What this means is that a recreational player typically handicaps a NFL game by looking at the teams, deciding which one he think will win and then evaluating the likelihood of a team covering the pointspread.  ‘Sharp’ NFL bettors flip the script and let the betting lines or ‘prices’ determine which side they’ll play.  At this point, a ‘sharp’ bettor might evaluate other components of the matchup but ultimately nothing is more important than the price.  And deeper still, nothing is more important to an evaluation of the ‘price’ on a NFL game than an understanding of the key number concept.


To understand what key numbers are and why they’re significant it helps to start at the beginning.  Key numbers are a function of the most common margins of victory in the National Football League.  The exact breakdown varies from year to year but over the long term you can expect just under 15% of all NFL games to be decided by 3 points and between 9 and 10% of all games to be decided by 7 points.  Since the majority of scoring in pro football is done in increments of 3 and 7 that makes perfect sense. 

Key numbers are the corresponding pointspreads to the previously mentioned margins of victory.  That means at 3 and 7 are the most important key numbers in NFL football.  The numbers are also important in college football betting though the exact margin of victory breakdown is somewhat different.  When you understand the significance of key numbers you’ll gain a greater appreciation of which line moves are significant and which ones are less so.  Multiples of 3 and 7 can also be considered key numbers though these margins occur less frequently.  NFL games are decided by 6 points approximately 6% of the time and by 14 points approximately 5% of the time.  Once you get higher than 14, the ‘key number’ value of multiples of 7 and 3 become less pronounced.  For that matter, it’s extremely rare to see a pointspread higher than 14 points in a NFL game.


For example, a move from -3 to -3.5 is more significant than a move from -3.5 to -5.  At first glance, you’d think that since the move from -3.5 to -5 points is a 1.5 point move and the move from -3 to -3.5 is just 0.5 points that the larger line move is more significant.  That’s not the case-in terms of using line movement to track betting patterns the move from -3 to -3.5 is much more significant since it is a move off of a key number.  A bookmaker is much more likely to quickly move a line when a key number isn’t involved as is the case in the move from -3.5 to -5.  You’ll sometimes hear non-key numbers called ‘dead numbers’.  A move from -3 to -3.5 is done much more deliberately as would be a move from -6.5 to -7. 

A secondary component of understanding key numbers as a betting tool is to appreciate the value of a half point.  A recreational player will typically consider a half point insignificant.  If he likes a favorite he’ll just as readily lay -7.5 points as he would -7 points.  That’s a big mistake and one that will cost him money over the long term.  The half point differential (you’ll sometimes hear the half point called ‘the hook’ or ‘the twig’) is not surprisingly most significant at -2.5 and -3.5 along with -6.5 and -7.5 due to the proximity of these numbers to -3 and -7.  Look for an in-depth examination of the value of a point or half point in a future article. 

There are a number of different ways to use key numbers in your handicapping but at this point we just want you to be aware of what they are and why they’re significant.  In future articles we’ll delve into specific handicapping strategies involving key numbers as well as look at key number theory in college football.

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