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Sports betting 101 Series: How NFL Betting Lines Work

Might as well make some money on what appears to be a lost season

This article is part of our on-going series regarding the brave new world of legal sports betting! If you’re new to the game and are too embarrassed to ask the initial questions, good news! I was too. As the guy who everyone yells at at the blackjack table for hitting on 18, I’ve delved into this from a newbie perspective and wanted to bring you all along to show you what I’ve learned.

Now I just need to, ugh, drive to Iowa. but let’s get right into it!

After months of waiting, the NFL has finally returned. The 2020 season is set to be the strangest in the league’s 100 year history, thanks to the coronavirus pandemic. The spread of the virus means that the NFL has had to make some significant changes to proceedings. Preseason was cancelled, spectators are for the most part barred from attending games and some players have even opted out of playing altogether. 

Although much has changed, some things have remained the same, such as the NFL betting market which continues to be among the most lucrative in the world. If you have never had a go at betting on football, now could be the perfect time to change that – head to for the very best odds on the market.

However, you may be put off by the NFL’s complicated ‘lines’ system. Unlike soccer, tennis and many other odds which are extremely easy to comprehend, ‘lines’ can leave many first time sportsbook users baffled. 

Once you get the hang of things, the mystery around NFL betting will soon disappear. The below guide will break things down slowly and by the end of reading it you will be an NFL lines expert!

What are NFL Lines?

The NFL is a league of minnows and giants so the bookies had to think of a way to get more people betting on the lesser ranked teams. If there is an even spread of betting across the two teams, bookies are far more likely to turn a profit, regardless of the outcome. 

This is where ‘lines’ come in. In practice, these lines encourage more betting on the underdogs. But how do they do it? Read on to find out. 

Example of a NFL Betting Line

Below is a purely hypothetical betting line – please do not read anything into it Raiders or Packers fans!

Sunday 27 September

100 Las Vegas Raiders -5.5 -160 38.5

101 Green Bay Packers +5.5 +140 38.5


At the head of every NFL betting line is the date. This is pretty self explanatory. It helps sportsbooks and players identify the games they want to bet on with minimum fuss.  

Rotation Number 

Next up is our two rotation numbers. Every single weekend, each NFL team is given one of these numbers. In our example, the Raiders have been allocated 100 while the Packers have been allocated 101. These have nothing to do with the actual odds of the game. Rotation numbers are instead used to create a level of uniformity between different sportsbooks. 

If each betting line has a unique number, identifying the bet you wish to make is a great deal easier. This makes an essential if often forgotten part of the NFL betting line. 

Point Spread 

Right, now we’re getting into the complicated stuff. In a nutshell, the points spread is used to balance out betting between the two NFL teams. In most matches one team (the favourite) will be given a negative points spread while the other (the underdog) will be allocated a positive one. The point spreads will be higher depending on how much of a mismatch sportsbooks predict the game to be.

In our example, the Raiders have a -5.5 point spread. In practice, this means that anyone backing them to win would need them to secure a winning margin of six points or more in order for their bet to come in. The opposite applies for the underdogs in our example. In order for anyone backing the +5.5 Packers to win would need them to avoid losing five points of less to receive a payout. 


When selecting a money line, the team you choose merely has to win in order for you to receive a payout. However, you stand to win a lot more money by backing the underdog than the favourite. Let’s go back to our example. 

The Raiders are listed at -160 on the moneyline. This means that $160 would return $100 in winnings. The Packers are listed at +140, meaning a $100 bet would return a whopping $140, It is worth noting that players do not have to bet $100 on an NFL line, it is just the easiest way for sportsbooks to illustrate potential winnings to their customers.

Over/Under Totals

The very last thing you need to know about NFL betting lines in the over/under totals. In our example, this is listed at 38.5. 

If you bet over, you are wagering that the two teams will score more than 39 points in the game. Under, meanwhile, would mean you were predicting a score of 38 points or less. Odds on Over/Under bets are usually -110, meaning a $110 bet would return $100.

Now that you understand NFL betting lines, there’s nothing to stop you getting your first taste of the action. Good luck!

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Joe Johnson

Joe Johnson started back in 2015 & in 2019, and purchased before the 2017-18 season , used to write for and is the host of the ’Morning Joes’ & ‘About the Labor’ Podcasts, as well. Follow on Twitter: @vtPTSD

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