Betting on home underdogs in the NFL isn't just a fly-by-night ploy. It's a strategy—a means of sussing out opportunity. You're effectively wagering against the public, and a strong public at that. We're here to help you decide whether the strategy itself is for you, and how you can spot the right situations if you decide it is.
What Is A Home Underdog?
Home underdogs aren't any different from a standard underdog. In the NFL, they are the team that isn't projected to win. Their status will be communicated in the spread and moneyline.
For the spread, you'll see they are expected to fall by a certain amount. If the Miami Dolphins, for example, are +5.5-point underdogs against the New York Jets, this means they're projected to lose by at least six points. By betting in their favor, you're essentially saying they'll lose by five or less—or actually win.
Looking at the moneyline, underdogs will be the team offering the most lucrative return on your investment. Let's say the Dolphins are a +150 in that same game with the Jets. This signals to you that they're not the favorite, and that for every $100 you wager, you could win $150 if your bet pans out.
Take all these rules, apply it to the game's host team, and presto! You have yourself a home underdog.
Why Are Home Underdogs So Unique?
Regular underdogs are not special in definition or occurrence. Every NFL team is one at some point when it comes to singular contests. And that includes the best of the best—like the dynastic New England Patriots.
To be counted out at home, though, is unique. This holds especially true in the NFL. Teams only play 16 games a year, eight of which come on their own turf. The sport is such a big draw that home squads are typically playing in front of large swathes of rowdy supporters. That's why home-field advantage is considered so important during the postseason. It matters.
Consider this: During the 2017 NFL season, 22 of the 32 franchises posted positive total point differentials at home. That's pretty significant when you consider more than half the league doesn't make the playoffs or finish with above .500 records. These green-light differentials, even in the aggregate, are a sign of how much better teams, good and bad to great and terrible, tend to play at home.
By comparison, only 13 squads finished with a total positive point differential on the road during the 2017 campaign. That's a massive difference, and it shows how often visiting opponents are at a default disadvantage. Familiarity with the environment, from climate to the altitude and everything in between, is an important factor in each and every game.
Hence why home underdogs are so noteworthy. In these cases, sportsbooks are basically taking a strength and painting it either as a weakness or simply just not relevant enough of an asset to dethrone their enemy.
When Do Home Underdogs Typically Pop Up?
Home underdogs are usually the direct result of a variance in skill and effectiveness. Bad teams are thought to be better when playing on their own field, but they're not magically going to match the level of play incumbent of a Super Bowl contender.
Let's say the Cleveland Browns are 2-11 entering Week 15 and playing host to the 10-3 Green Bay Packers. The point spread in this situation will be smaller than if the Browns were playing at Lambeau Field, but oddsmakers aren't going to make them favorites in any capacity. They're still the same team that has, in theory, churned out a demonstratively terrible record. There is a difference between improved performances and entire reinventions.
Injuries also have an impact on shaping home underdogs. The Seattle Seahawks have long been one of the NFL's most reliable home-field performers. But if they lose quarterback Russell Wilson to a shoulder injury before a Week 9 matchup with the Arizona Cardinals, they're not going to be favored over their visitor.
It doesn't matter what the records of both teams are in most instances. For our example specifically, the Seahawks could be 6-1, with the Cardinals coming in at 0-7. The former would still be peddled as an underdog, albeit perhaps not a monstrous one, because it's missing its most important player.
Hot streaks can play a role in creating home underdogs as well. If the Oakland Raiders have won six straight games and are traveling to play the Denver Broncos in Week 12, there's a good chance they'll be viewed in a rosy light by the sportsbooks. That won't be the case if their record is somehow much worse or the Broncos are equally hot. But if their win-loss tally is similar or better, you can expect to them turn the Broncos into underdogs.
The reverse is likewise true. Cold streaks adversely impact home-team status. Let's say the New Orleans Saints are on course to contend for a playoff spot, but they've lost three straight games. They're not as likely to be favored over their next opponent as a result of that rut.
And finally, the time of year tends to decide how many weekly home underdogs the NFL is spitting out. The later into the season the league gets, the more we'll see teams who have clinched a playoff berth rest key players. Conversely, we'll also witness an influx of tanking measures from squads who have played themselves outside the postseason picture. Both sides of the coin lend themselves to an uptick in weekly home underdogs.
When's The Best Time To Bet On Home Underdogs?
This should be pretty straightforward. The goal for every bettor is to take advantage of circumstances. If you see a home team that is being underrated by the sportsbooks despite going up against a road unit dealing with a cold streak or pivotal injury, that'll be a vote in favor of making the dice roll.
Investing in late-season home underdogs is also fairly good practice. As we outlined before, player availability and team efforts wax and wane as the schedule wears on. If a prospective postseason squad is coming into town to face a team with a losing record, don't immediately write off the latter. Remember: Players tend to fare better in friendly territory, and good outfits are more open to falling victim to sleeper opponents—inferior teams against which their guard will be down.
Scenario: The Dallas Cowboys have clinched a playoff berth entering Week 14. But both their division title and home-field advantage is still up in the air. They're traveling to square off with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who are 2-10 with no hope of sniffing the playoffs. And yet, in this hypothetical world, the Bucs also happen to be a young team, with a semi-new starting quarterback. They're not going to bench him to improve their draft-pick status. They'll want him to get his reps.
At this point, you see the Bucs are +10.5 spread underdogs and laying +225 on the moneyline front. One of those bets may be an investment you want to make, because the stage is set for them to keep things close or even pull off the upset.
This, for the record, is among the most enticing options to choose from. There are others. Maybe the two teams in question are on similar ground, but the road team is riding a win streak and getting favorite status. You're free to roll with the home squad in that scenario as well.
Similar thinking can be applied to larger-than-life spreads. Sometimes, a team is counted out by so much you almost cannot envision them possibly losing by that amount. If you see the Cincinnati Bengals are +21.5 underdogs at home against the Pittsburgh Steelers, it's possible the Bengals will cover due to the sheer enormity of the spread.
Feel free to subscribe to this thought process when looking at massive moneyline underdogs—think +250 to +300 or higher. In these instances, though, you'll want to curtail your typical betting amount since you're betting on a straight outcome (a win) and affording yourself less wiggle room when it comes to hitting on the wager.
Potential Risks When Betting On Home Underdogs
Although putting money on home underdogs can be a profitable endeavor, this approach is not gospel. You should not be betting on every single spread and hoping to come out on top each week. It won't work that way.
The first pitfall: Information you receive from certain intermediary websites. Other pages will throw a bunch of numbers at you. For instance, one might say that "67 percent of all home teams have covered the spread this season," which would then compel you to work the home-underdog department even harder. But these numbers are almost always misleading—as in, entirely inaccurate. Sites are usually just regurgitating results from polls they've placed on their page or emphasizing a small sample size. Neither is a dependable method.
Beware of columns and how-tos that relay such specific intel. They are loose estimates, not genuine reflections of the market, the money invested or past results. We won't ever do that to you here.
Another issue you could run into when betting home underdogs is the "Any Given Sunday" effect. Every NFL squad only plays 16 regular-season games, which gives each individual contest more meaning than most other professional team sports. This then increases the likelihood of chance outcomes.
In other words: Within a one-off setting, any team can beat any other team. The league's worst squad could take out the Super Bowl favorite. It could happen. It's unlikely, but it's possible.
This technically is an argument in support of home underdogs, since you're wagering on the less-flattering scenarios by design. But teams are underdogs for a reason—especially at home. It's paramount you do your homework and figure out why. Is it injuries? Sheer talent level? Is the road team riding a hot streak? Or is their actually a market inefficiency you can exploit because, despite being an underdog, the home team is really a threat to cover or win outright?
Do not take these wagers lightly. They can be effective, and we've laid out ways above to help you make the most of them. But the NFL is a fickle sport. Some level of unpredictability must be caked into your projections.
Lessons Learned About Home-Underdog Betting
- Home underdogs are rarer than regular underdogs, which makes them riskier but also more profitable bets
- Spread bets on home underdogs provide you with more flexibility when wagering on straight outcomes
- Moneyline gets on home underdogs should be reserved for teams you believe are suffering from an oddsmaking inefficiency
- The best time of year to invest in home underdogs is later in the NFL's season
- Home-underdog betting is not a sweeping strategy to use on every game, but rather a consistent tool you break out under the necessary opportunities