NFL picks. odds and point spreads: How to use opening lines

Finding an edge when betting on the NFL is made difficult by the efficiency of the market. After all, millions of dollars are wagered on the NFL every week, with limits of up to $100,000 per bet on game day. However, amateurs can occasionally gain an edge by betting early. In some cases, that means looking a week or even two weeks ahead.

One bettor I know is sitting at a computer around 4pm on a Tuesday afternoon waiting for the first forecast lines to be released. Okay, it’s me and I keep updating the page in anticipation of placing some of my most profitable bets of the week.

Let’s quickly go through a typical week of NFL betting. The look-ahead lines open on Tuesday or Wednesday, 10 to 12 days before kick-off. These lines then close when Sunday games begin. The same lines reopen as the Sunday list comes to an end and begin to take more concrete form the following week in response to injuries, training reports, coaches press conferences and of course, sharp betting.

As more information is gathered, the wisdom of the crowd will shift the lines towards more informed numbers. It’s not uncommon for a game to close a point or two behind its opening number, creating the value of the closing line – the change in implied probability between your original bet and the closing market. The astute bettors and syndicates create power rankings and sift through mountains of data and information to get the best prices, but there’s an easier way to potentially exploit opening bets by narrowing it down to line deviations around the key numbers three and seven.

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Why three and seven? Since 2015 — when the NFL scaled back extra point attempts from a 20-yard field goal to a more difficult 33-yard attempt — 15 percent of regular season games ended with a goal advantage of exactly three points, which is by far the most common result. Nine percent of games ended with a seven point difference, the second most likely outcome.

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Here’s how the strategy works in action. On Tuesday, SuperBook released its Preview lines for week 7. SuperBook – like Circa, Pinnacle, and Bookmaker – is considered a sharp book, meaning its prices are usually ahead of the market. Later that day, other sportsbooks such as FanDuel and DraftKings released their forecasts. Most game prizes have been in sync — with the exception of the Cincinnati Bengals, who were six-point favorites against the Atlanta Falcons in FanDuel. SuperBook had previously posted the Bengals at -6½, which immediately gave us half a value point by winning the Bengals at -6 at FanDuel. That might not sound like much, but a move from -6 to -6½ would give us 3.3 percent of the close, almost enough to cover the commission charged by most sportsbooks on a -110 line. Eventually the line moved to Bengals -7 giving us 9.3 percent of the potential closing value, a very good indication that we are on the right side of the bet.

I bet most look-ahead lines where the favorite is -2½ or -6½ comfortably, as those numbers usually improve towards the end. Last season, 19 of 31 opening lines improved at -2½ – 61 percent – from closing, with a mean improvement of half a point. Seven of 12 opening lines at -6½ (58 percent) improved, with a mean improvement of one point. Both are solid value propositions. No other point spread has had a change in value big enough to make it worthwhile for us. This season, five of seven opening lines have improved from -2½, with one remaining unchanged, while both favorites improved at -6½.

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Such forward-thinking bets often come with little downside, provided there are no major injuries or changes affecting either team. For example, if a favorite slips down from -6½ to -6 or even -5, the key number seven is still on our side; a margin of seven (which would make us a winner) is more likely than either five or six (which would make us a loser in this scenario if we had bet -6½ early). Yes, we are losing closing value, but the impact is not dramatic. The same dynamic applies to favorites priced at -2½. Again, it’s never fun to see the market move against you, but we do have some wiggle room on these particular bets.

If you miss the opening lines, it’s often best to respond to the week’s news as quickly as possible. Earlier is always better; By Sunday afternoon the markets have become hyper efficient due to sharp action and increased betting limits. Keep in mind that some bettors or syndicates are making $100,000 bets at this point and barely moving the market, showing how happy everyone is with the odds as kickoffs get closer.

Here are this week’s games with my picks. As of Tuesday afternoon, picks were being made against the consensus point spreads; Odds that have changed since then have been updated in bold, but picks are fixed at previous odds.

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Choose: Cincinnati Bengals -1 or -115 (bet $115 to win $100) or better on the money line (This number has since increased.)

New York Jets at Green Bay Packers (-7½)

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Pick: Over 46.5 points, playable to over 48. For the game, the Jets pick is +7, but it’s not the best bet. That number has since increased.

Jacksonville Jaguars at Indianapolis Colts (-2)

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Choice: Indianapolis Colts -2

Minnesota Vikings (-3½) at Miami Dolphins

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Tip: Minnesota Vikings -3 (This number has since gone up.)

New England Patriots at Cleveland Browns (-2½)

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Choice: New England Patriots +3 (That number has since gone down.)

Baltimore Ravens (-5½) at the New York Giants

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Choice: Baltimore Ravens -5 (This number has since increased.)

San Francisco 49ers (-5½) at Atlanta Falcons

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Tip: San Francisco 49ers -5½

Tampa Bay Buccaneers (-8½) at Pittsburgh Steelers

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Tip: Tampa Bay Buccaneers -8 (That number has since gone up.)

Carolina Panthers at Los Angeles Rams (-10)

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Tip: Carolina Panthers +10½ (That number has since gone down.)

Arizona Cardinals (-2½) at Seattle Seahawks

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Tip: Arizona Cardinals -2½

Buffalo Bills (-3) with the Kansas City Chiefs

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Tip: Buffalo Bills -2½ (This number has since increased)

Dallas Cowboys at Philadelphia Eagles (-6½)

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Tip: Philadelphia Eagles -5 (This number has since gone up.)

Denver Broncos at Los Angeles Chargers (-4½)

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Tip: Denver Broncos +5 (That number has since gone down.)

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