NFL Handicapping 101

The Football Bettor’s Guide to NFL Handicapping

Football bettors fall into one of two camps.

The first camp is made up of folks who go with their gut. They make bets based on which teams they “feel” have a solid chance of winning. Sometimes, they choose their favorite teams, the ones they’ve spent years cheering for while sitting on their couches. Other times, they make their decisions based solely on who’s hot.

In other words, they pick blind.

The second camp, this is the camp you want to be a part of. It is comprised of folks who take NFL betting seriously. They do their research, work the numbers, and handicap games accordingly.

It shouldn’t surprise you that they’re the ones who tend to win their bets.

It’s true that luck will always play a role in a game’s outcome. But smart NFL handicapping can mitigate the risk and help you to cash in more often.

I’ll show you how to handicap NFL games below. Fair warning: there’s some work involved. But it’s work that can dramatically grow your bankroll. That being the case, it’s worth doing.

Before we jump into the meat of this football handicapping guide, let’s talk about how handicapping works and why you should do it. *See my guide to betting the NFL spread here.

NFL Handicapping 101: How It Works And How It Helps

Of course, no two teams are created equal in the NFL (or college football for that matter). Each has its inherent strengths and weaknesses. For example, some have a productive offensive line, but are weak on defense. Also, keep in mind that circumstances of the moment, for example, an injured starting QB can hobble a team’s scoring potential on game night.

Handicapping takes these, and many other, aspects into account. It’s a method of identifying the areas in which a team shines, the areas in which it’s vulnerable, and incorporating that intel into your betting decisions. The goal is to make smarter bets, and in the process to become a more successful, that is, a more profitable bettor.

By the way, the extent to which you handicap football games is entirely up to you. How much analysis are you willing to do? How much time are you willing to put into it, knowing that your efforts will improve your chances of winning?

Only you can answer these questions. My job is to show you the basics of NFL handicapping and give you the necessary tools to do it properly.

Let’s get started.

Get Familiar With Key Football Stats

This is where the rubber meets the road. In my opinion, you can’t properly handicap NFL games if you ignore the data. The trick is to know which numbers offer true insight into a team’s chances of winning, and which ones are a waste of time.

Here are some of the basic numbers to keep your eyes on:
  • rushing yards per game
  • yards per rush attempt
  • passing yards per game
  • yards per pass attempt
  • turnover ratio
  • sacks per game
  • interceptions per game

A lot of expert handicappers also track first-half scoring, seasonal win/loss/tie record against the spread, and performance on the road versus at home. Some even go as far as tracking a yards-per-point differential, both for offense and defense.

As I mentioned, the extent to which you analyze numbers and assess a team’s potential is up to you. If you’re just getting started with football handicapping, I recommend sticking to the basics. Don’t overwhelm yourself. Learn the trade, and add other stats into the mix when you reach a reasonable level of comfort.

Learning to properly handicap NFL games is a marathon, not a sprint.

Take Into Account A Team’s Offense AND Defense

You obviously want to evaluate a team’s offensive line. Its strength, efficiency, and explosiveness are good indicators regarding its scoring potential for any given game. But if that’s where your analysis ends, you’re going to be in trouble.

One of the biggest oversights football bettors make is to neglect a team’s DEFENSIVE line. It’s not entirely their fault. Most of the attention from pundits and analysts is focused on offense. Completed passes, touchdowns, and red zone rushing will always be sexier.

While defense does receive attention, it receives far less. Consequently, bettors tend to direct their focus to where the excitement is: offense.

That’s a huge mistake if you’re handicapping games. You must evaluate a team’s defensive line. You need to assess their ability to prevent the other team’s offense from scoring. Sacks, interceptions, tackles, etc… these are important numbers to track.

Not All Wins And Losses Are Created Equal

A win/loss record can be useful in determining a team’s chances of winning an upcoming game. For example, if the Patriots are showing 11 wins and two losses for the season, that should give you confidence in their potential.

But as you can imagine, a simple win/loss number doesn’t tell the whole story. What’s missing is the REASON. To wit, how did a team amass its wins and losses?

For example, suppose you’re thinking about betting on the Patriots. You know that Brady has been instrumental in the team’s wins. Let’s turn back the clock and say it’s early in the 2016 season. Remember when Brady was suspended for the Deflategate fiasco? Jimmy Garoppolo stepped in.

Garoppolo happened to do fine in Brady’s absence. But what if he hadn’t? What if he had failed to make good passes, or gotten sacked over and over? In other words, what if he had turned out to be a major disappointment, highlighting Brady’s importance?

The point is, knowing how a team wins its games can shed light on where to place your bets based on current circumstances.

The same goes for losses. Investigate the reasons a team has lost its recent games. Did it have an overly-porous offensive line? Did its running backs keep fumbling the ball, leading to turnovers? Also, what’s the coach doing to address these problems?

Simply put, look beyond the simple win/loss number. Figure out HOW the team has been winning and losing games.

How Important Is The Home Field Advantage?

You know intuitively that home-field advantage is important. That’s true for all sports. But how important is it in football?

If you’re thinking, “It’s probably an eight on a 10-scale,” you’d be right.

According to, home teams have won nearly 60% of their games since 1990. Some teams, such as the Packers, have won over 70% of their home games.

This is worth mentioning even though you already know that home field advantage is important. Why? Because believe it or not, many football bettors manage to forget it when they place their bets.

Analyze NFL Matchups To Identify Smart Bets

You can’t properly handicap games without taking matchups into account. After you’ve analyzed a team’s key stats, assessed the quality of its offensive and defensive lines, and figured out the reasons it wins and loses games, it’s time to focus on its opponent.

How has your team faired against its opponent in the past? Does the opposing team have an experienced defensive line that might overwhelm your offense that’s filled with newer, less-experienced players? What about the other team’s quarterback? Is he fresh or coming off an injury? Is he playing at home or on the road? Also, if the opposing team has a dominating ground game, can your defensive line prevent them from moving the rock?

Keep in mind, the closer we get to the playoffs, the more beaten up teams will become. Months spent on the gridiron can take a huge toll on players. Mismatches that might have been seemed small and inconsequential early in the season are likely to become more pronounced.

Learn To Anticipate A Team’s Disposition

Team disposition is a mercurial handicapping factor; it’s difficult to get a bead on. But if you manage to do it well, you stand to leverage a team’s momentum.

Here’s how it works

When a team wins a game, it’s highly motivated to repeat that outcome. This state of high motivation can have a positive influence on their chances of doing exactly that. This is how winning streaks occur.

On the other hand, when a team loses a game, it suffers a decline in motivation. The loss is disheartening. It’s hard to get excited about winning the next game if you were badly beaten during the previous game. This is how losing streaks occur.

It’s worth noting that some losses can actually improve a team’s motivation. Team rivalries often play a role. For example, if the Jets lose to the Patriots, they’re going to be highly motivated to effect a different outcome when they meet again. If the Browns lose to the Bengals, you can bet they aren’t going to hang their heads and sulk. They’re going to want revenge.

Team disposition, as difficult as it is to track, can be a potent factor in determining a team’s potential to win its next game.

Check The Local Weather Forecast

This is one of the easiest football handicapping factors to use. Inclement weather can have a major effect on a team’s performance.

For example, suppose the weather forecast calls for a lot of rain. Such conditions can impair visibility. That’s trouble for a team that typically relies on its passing game. By contrast, that might be great news for a team who’s specialty is its ground game.

Or suppose there’s a lot of wind in the forecast. Strong winds can wreak havoc with a team’s passing game, crippling the QB’s accuracy.

Look for extreme weather (a light drizzle won’t affect a game’s outcome). It’s in these type of playing conditions that opportunities materialize for the savvy NFL bettor.

Examine The Injury Report To Avoid Nasty Surprises

If weather is one of the easiest handicapping factors to consider, player injuries are right behind it.

You should always check the latest NFL injury report before placing your bets. The absence of a starting player can devastate a team’s performance. Imagine if Tom Brady suddenly sustained an elbow injury that relegates him to the sidelines. Or imagine if Adrian Peterson suddenly tears a hamstring, putting him out of commission.

You need to be aware of these types of circumstances. The last thing you want to do is place a large bet only to learn that your team’s star QB or running back isn’t going to play.

Keep your eyes on the injury report.

The Role Of The Coach In NFL Betting

This is arguably the handicapping factor most commonly overlooked by bettors. A head coach has a huge influence on his team’s performance. It’s not just a matter of style or how well he motivates his team. Also important is the amount of latitude he gives his players.

When you’re evaluating a team, don’t forget to evaluate the coaching staff. Consider the head coach’s and his coordinators’ philosophy toward the game. Note whether they favor an aggressive offensive game or rely heavily on defense. And keep your eyes on coaching changes. A new head coach may bring a fresh outlook, but might also try to implement strategies that are unfamiliar to his players.


Those are the basics of NFL handicapping. If you’re tired of picking blind and watching your bets go up in smoke, try to handicap games using the above tools. Remember, a bet that’s well-informed is a bet that’s more likely to cash out.

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