NFL Preseason Handicapping Basics–Part 3: Significance of the Pointspread


We continue our discussion of NFL Preseason handicapping by looking at the pointspread and the importance—or lack their of—it has on betting these exhibition games. On balance, the one thing that the average sports bettor could do to improve his results is to spend some time learning to understand the pointspread. When you understand intuitively what the pointspread means, what it does and how it is made it makes you understand better how to handicap and bet. More than anything else, it is the foundation of becoming a ‘sharp’ sports bettor.


In general terms the pointspread is intended to do one thing and one thing only: attract two way action in hopes that at kickoff the bookmaker will have the same amount of liability on one side that he does on the other. He has a few tricks and tactics at his disposal to help him in doing this, but that’s a different topic for a different time. In actuality, the bookmaker isn’t ‘handicapping the game’ to hang a number, rather he’s handicapping the public’s perception of the game.

It’s the ‘handicapping’ component where the general public goes wrong in their perception of the pointspread. You’ll often hear non-bettors and recreational players characterize the point spread as ‘predicting’ the outcome of a game. It does not do that in any way, shape or form. Bookmakers don’t pat themselves on the back when they get their ‘prediction’ right. In fact, a bookmaker’s worst nightmare is getting ‘middled’. When a game lands right on the number all bets are returned and no one makes any money.

Specific to the NFL pointspread, it’s significantly different in the preseason than in the regular season. The overwhelming majority of preseason NFL games fall right around 3. In other words, right around the standard home field advantage in the NFL. Every now and then a preseason pointspread will reflect the qualitative or situational advantage of one team or another. This is in marked contrast to regular season pointspreads which are likely the most meticulously calculated and financially significant numbers that a bookmaker makes. As the regular season approaches we’ll look in detail at how NFL regular season lines are made and moved.


The National Football League has a reputation among both casual and more sophisticated sports bettors as being the toughest sport ‘to beat’ and the sport having the ‘sharpest numbers’. That’s very likely the case though perhaps not to the degree that many believe. Certainly, the NFL pointspread is of utmost importance during the regular season which is why so many players find it so tricky to bet. There’s much more parity in the NFL than many recreational bettors believe and blindly laying points—even with the best teams—is a quick way to burn through your bankroll.

In the previous sections on NFL preseason betting we’ve spoken many times about how it can be ‘counterintuitive’ to what we do during the regular season. In fact, the easiest and quickest way to bet a preseason game is to think about how you’d bet it during the regular season—and then do the opposite. The ‘counterintuitive’ concept continues here—in diametrical opposition to the regular season the preseason NFL pointspread is almost meaningless. This is due not only to the nature of the games themselves but the way that bookmakers calculate the lines.

Statistically speaking, the pointspread comes into play in only 20% (approximately) of NFL preseason games. In fact, you can make a good case that you should just ignore the pointspread altogether and focus on picking the winner of the game. Based on that figure above, the pointspread won’t make any difference whatsoever in 4 out of every 5 NFL preseason games. This concept also fits well within some of the other realities of preseason NFL football. Given that so much of the handicapping involves what a coach’s ‘goals’ are for a particular week it’s easy to extrapolate that to help determine the winner. If one coach is focusing on execution and the other is just trying to keep his players healthy until the season opens, it’s very likely that the former team will have a better chance of winning than the latter.