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NFL Totals Handicapping

At one point, betting NFL totals was almost exclusively done by ‘sharp’ players.  Recreational NFL bettors weren’t comfortable with handicapping totals which is far less intuitive than looking at a matchup and deciding which team will win.  That has started to change for a confluence of factors and recreational players are increasingly gravitating not only to totals but moneylines and prop bets as well.    In this article we’ll look at some basic concepts of NFL totals handicapping.  Look for future articles on more advanced totals handicapping methodologies.

If you’re looking to learn how to handicapping NFL totals I’m going to operate on the assumption that you know what they are.  We’ve got more in-depth explanations of totals (NFL and otherwise) elsewhere on the site but here’s a quick refresher.  A totals bet is often referred to as the ‘Over/Under’ on a game.  The bookmaker sets a number called a ‘total’ and your job is to decide if the relevant game metric will exceed the total and go ‘Over’ or not exceed the total and stay ‘Under’.  The most common totals are based on the combined score of both teams in a game.  For example, the total in Super Bowl LIV closed at 53.  The final score was Kansas City 31 San Francisco 20 for a combined 51 points meaning the ‘Under’ was a winner.

Before we get into handicapping totals here’s some interesting facts derived from a database of all NFL games played in the last 15 years.  There isn’t any inherent advantage betting the ‘Over’ or the ‘Under’ based on past performance data as they’ve both hit close to 50% of the time.  In addition, there really aren’t the same type of ‘key numbers’ for NFL totals equivalent to the significance of 3 and 7 for NFL pointspreads.  There are some totals that have hit with a greater degree of frequency including 33, 37, 40, 43, 44, 47 and 51.  The problem with putting too much of an emphasis on these numbers is the cyclical nature of the sport.  There are periods where scoring is up and periods where scoring is down.  This is partially a function of the evolution of coaching strategies but also a by-product of NFL rule changes.  The league tweaks the rules with enough frequency that in my opinion you’re well served to not worry too much about ‘key numbers’ in totals.


Betting NFL totals can be challenging since many of the factors that you would think to look at to handicap them are well known by the linesmaker and ‘baked’ into the number.  Sportsbooks know a team’s average points for and points against.  They also know more specialized metrics such as the number of plays a team runs in an average game.  They understand how a team’s offensive philosophy impacts scoring.  They also have plenty of information on game day weather. 

If we’re working from the same information as the bookmaker how do we start handicapping totals?  As with pointspreads, it’s a good idea to think counter-intuitively and not be afraid to go against the prevailing public opinion.  One way to measure this is the movement of NFL totals.  Earlier, we talked about the total for Super Bowl LIV between the Kansas City Chiefs and San Francisco 49ers.  The total for Super Bowl LIV opened at 51.5 and immediately attracted action on the ‘Over’.  Eventually, it would go up to 55 or 55.5 at which point ‘smart money’ started to bet the ‘Under’.  The total eventually settled at 54 or 54.5 and received fairly balanced action at this level.  The interesting thing, however, was that while the total number of bets was strongly biased to the ‘Over’ (65% to 70% of all tickets) the money bet on the game was relatively balanced.  This means that although significantly more bets were being made on the ‘Over’ the ‘Under’ was receiving enough large bets to keep the money in balance. 

We’ll look at ‘reading’ line movements in a future article but the ‘smart money’ didn’t so much crunch the statistical numbers of the matchup to find their position on the total as they did react to the big move toward the ‘Over’.  With the public perception expecting a high scoring game the ‘contrarian’ play was to take the ‘Under’ and that was the winning position albeit narrowly. 


Something that I’ve always had a good deal of success with can best be described as making a contrarian play on the weather.  More specifically, I’ll go against a totals move based on the weather forecast.  In general, the betting public will equate any type of severe weather such as wind, rain or snow with a play on the ‘Under’.  The reality is that since both teams have to play in the same elements that it’s incorrect to generalize on how inclement weather will play out on the field.  There are just too many variables.  One theory is that a rainy field means a wet ball which translates into more turnovers.  The problem with that is that turnovers mean the defense starts their drive with good field position and that means more scoring. 

Weather can definitely influence the way a NFL game is played but it takes significantly more nuance to understand how than just assuming that bad weather means the game goes ‘Under’.  For example, strong winds suggest that kickers will have more difficulty with field goals.  It’s not quite that simple.  An experienced kicker with a strong leg can compensate for the wind speed and direction.  A bigger problem is gusty, frequently shifting winds.  If you want to handicap totals with the weather it requires a more detailed analysis of the ‘micro-climate’ in which the game is played—the stadium and the weather peculiarities of the immediate vicinity.  It also requires a knowledge of the personnel of each team and their skill sets.  As you can see, this can get very involved and very detailed. 

We’ll delve deeper into the impact of weather on football as well as baseball down the road.  For now, the important takeaway:  if the conventional wisdom of the public is that a weather forecast will impact the game one way don’t be afraid to be a contrarian and go against the crowd.

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