NFL betting: Does the spread even matter?

As soon as NFL betting lines are released early every week, we comb through the spreads. We try and find out which spreads are too high, which spreads are too low and try and figure out where the value is. We've been conditioned to think these spreads are extremely spot on and that Vegas always knows what's going to happen. Every point matters. However, recent data seems to suggest we might be overthinking things.

Underdogs are barking

If you haven't noticed, underdogs are looking good to begin the NFL season. The Dallas Cowboys won on Monday night as a 1-point road underdog against the Giants. If you've been blindly betting the underdog against the spread this season, you are 28-18-2. That's nearly a 61% winning percentage in an industry where even the sharpest bettors can't ask for much more than a 55% win rate.

Where things become interesting is when you look at the overall results of the games. Of the 28 underdogs who have covered the spread, 21 of them have won outright. There has been one tie. Through 48 games this season, only six times has an underdog covered the spread and lost the game.

Through 48 games this season, we've seen 21 underdogs win outright. In 18 other instances, the favorite won the game and covered the spread. We've had two pushes and one tie. Through three weeks, the spread has only mattered in 13.3% of games.

BALTIMORE, MARYLAND - SEPTEMBER 18: Head coach Mike McDaniel of the Miami Dolphins talks with quarterback Tua Tagovailoa #1 of the Miami Dolphins in the second half against the Baltimore Ravens at M&T Bank Stadium on September 18, 2022 in Baltimore, Maryland. (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)
The Dolphins have won outright in back-to-back weeks as an underdog, highlighting the fact that these days, the spread rarely matters in the NFL. (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)

This isn't a new phenomenem

We're only three weeks into the current season, so it's been a small sample size. However, this is a trend that has continued from last season.

In 2021, underdogs went 137-133-2 against the spread. While that's a winning record, 50.7% isn't a good enough winning percentage to turn a profit in the NFL. If you bet $110 on every underdog against the spread last season, you would have lost $930.

Underdogs won outright in just 97 of 272 games last season. That is a winning percentage of under 36%. However, if you bet $100 on every underdog on the moneyline, you would have won $2,055.

This is the breakdown from last season:

  • 133 times the favorite won the game and covered the spread

  • 97 times the underdog won the game outright

  • 39 times the favorite won the game but the underdog covered the spread

  • 2 pushes

  • 1 tie

In other words, in 272 regular season games, the spread mattered just 39 times. That's 14.3% of the time.

What does this mean?

This data is fascinating to me. There are things you can take away on both sides of the equation.

First and foremost, if you like an underdog to cover the spread, you should be sprinkling some money on the moneyline every time. If you are not, you're doing yourself a disservice.

Even if you're risk averse, the least you should be doing is splitting your bet up. If you like the underdog against the spread, and you normally bet $100 per game, maybe put $75 of that on the spread and $25 on the moneyline. Maybe you split it evenly and go $50 on spread and $50 on the moneyline. That's a personal decision, but you should sprinkle every time.

On the other side of the equation, if you like the favorite, don't be afraid to lay the points. Outside of Wong teasers that go through 3 and 7, there's absolutely no reason to be teasing games. You shouldn't be buying points or risking more juice on alternate spreads. The majority of the time, those points won't matter and you're simply giving the sportsbook a bigger cut.

Look at this past week. Just once did the spread matter, and even then, it almost didn't. Detroit covered as a 6.5-point underdog but lost the game. The Lions led most of the game and Minnesota didn't take a lead until the final minute.

Teams like Jacksonville, Miami and Indianapolis were underdogs of larger than a field goal on Sunday. Sure, they cashed for anyone who took them on the spread. However, anyone who had the stones to take them on the moneyline came out with a much nicer payday.

We've been conditioned through years of betting that these spreads are gospel and that the game will come down to the wire against the number. A lot of bettors are afraid to lay big numbers for that reason. Underdog bettors usually try and gobble up as many points as they can get.

However, through the last 21 weeks of regular season football, there have been 320 games played. The spread has come into play just 45 times. That's just over 14% of the time. Almost 86% of the time, the number we spend the whole week analyzing doesn't even come into play.