NFL Moneyline vs Point Spread Betting

When betting on the NFL, you will have more than just point spread and moneyline options at your disposal. However, both of these wagers rank the as most popular on the football scene. They're also often confused for one another. Ipso facto, it's imperative you understand the differences and benefits of both.

What Is Moneyline Betting?

Investing in NFL moneylines is the most straightforward approach possible. You are betting on the outcome of a particular game (or future wager), and nothing else. You are not taking into account the total number of points scored or the point differential. You are predicting the winner. That's it.

Simple enough? It's supposed to be. The only thing to really know here is how to decipher the favorite from the underdog.

The team that's considered most likely to win a game will be listed with a negative sign (-) next to its odds. The underdog, by comparison, will have a plus sign (+) next to their name. 

If the Detroit Lions are favored to beat the Arizona Cardinals, you might see something like this:

Detroit Lions (-160) vs. Arizona Cardinals (+280)

It isn't hard to figure out how to read this once you get the hang of it. A -160 for the Lions means that you must wager $160 to win $100 on top of your investment. A +280 for the Cardinals means you will win $280 on top of your original wager for $100 you bet. 

And again: These numbers dictate your pick win the game outright.

What Is Spread Betting?

Spread betting diverges from moneylines in that you are no longer limiting yourself to a win-or-lose outcome. Instead, you are gambling on the point differential of the final score, by declaring a team will win at a minimum number of points or won't lose by a certain number of points.

This sounds convoluted when described in those blunt terms. It's not. Let's stick with hour Cardinals-Lions example. Here's how their line might look when looking at the spread:

Detroit Lions (-7.5) vs. Arizona Cardinals (+7.5)

By betting on the Lions here, you would be predicting that they will beat the Cardinals by at least eight points. If they win by by seven points or fewer, or should they fall to Arizona, then you will come out on the losing side of the bet.

On the flip side, if you invest in the Cardinals, you're saying the they will lose by fewer than eight points or even win. If they do that, this would be called "covering the spread." If they don't, then you lose the bet. 

Though the returns on spread wagering can sometimes vary, you're typically looking at returns of -110—which is to say, you need to lay down $110 to make a profit of $100. It's basically even money. 

Sometimes, by the way, the spread will be listed as "even" or a game will be called a "pick 'em" contest. This effectively says the two participating teams are two close to call. Rather than offering a projected point differential, sportsbooks are steering you toward moneyline wagers in which you're getting 1-to-1 odds or something similar.

When To Bet Spreads vs. When To Bet Moneylines

Choosing whether to bet the spread or moneylines comes down to two things: potential returns on investment and confidence in your wager.

Moneyline transactions are often pointless if you're betting the favorite. If the New England Patriots are heavily favored in a game against the New York Jets, they could be laying something like -750. No matter how sure you are that the Patriots will overthrow the Jets, working with this line is untenable; you would have to risk $750 just to make a $100 profit.

Taking a look at the spread in these situations holds far more value. Oddsmakers may say the Patriots are 15.5-point favorites over the Jets, in which case you can decide whether New England will win by at least 16 points or whether New York will lose by 15 or fewer while snagging close to even money.

You are free to deviate from this approach when the moneylines are closer. If the Patriots are only 1.5-point favorites with a -150 moneyline, you might feel more comfortable risking $150 to win $100. But the further up that moneyline travels, the less valuable, and sensible, it becomes when looking the favorites. Spread bets are your friends in those cases.

Moneylines are extremely useful when you believe in underdogs, though. Let's you have watched both the Jets and Patriots all season long and convinced New York can pull off the upset. If they really were 15.5-point underdogs, you would probably get moneyline of +1,100 or somewhere close to that range. Invest $100, and you'd earn a cool $1,100 profit if they win.

To be absolutely certain: These types of plays are not to be taken lightly. Teams are heavy underdogs for a reason. If you're not entirely on board with a team pulling off the upset, you're much better off limiting yourself to the spread, which gives you more flexibility, since your team can still lose without costing you a successful bet.

Placing parlays will also impact whether you should use spreads or moneylines. For those who don't know, parlay bets consist of combining multiple wagers in order to increase your return. But every pick you make needs to hit, otherwise you lose the entire wager. It doesn't matter whether you successfully predict three or four games of a five-tilt parlay. You still lose.

While you are free to mix and match spreads and moneylines for these wagers, we find moneylines to hold special value within parlays. They free you up to bet on multiple favorites without subjecting yourself to crummy returns.

As an example, strictly betting on a -250 moneyline isn't too appealing. If you combine three moneylines of the same level into a parlay, though, you'll make a larger return on your investment if they all hit.

Yes, your profit would be much bigger if you used the spreads. But it's way, way, way harder to hit in multiple spreads since you're trying to account for so many different scenarios. Ergo, from a purely trying-to-win perspective, spread bets are objectively better as single-game propositions. Moneylines have the most value when indulging parlays and, of course, predicting an outright win for an underdog squad. 

Lessons Learned About Spread vs. Moneyline Betting

  • Moneyline bets focus on strict outcomes of a game or future (i.e. win or lose)
  • Spread bets focus on point differentials of a given event (i.e. Team X will win by at least this much or Team Y will lose by no more than this much)
  • When investing in favorites, spread bets are the way to go
  • The only exception to the above rule comes when playing parlays, in which case combining multiple moneyline favorites is not only okay, but encouraged
  • Moneyline wagers are most valuable when two teams are relatively even ground or when you believe an underdog is going to win