NFL Betting Strategies: Underdogs With Low Totals

In the past we have discussed how bettors can utilize the total (over/under) to gain an edge when betting on baseball. Our research showed that due to the unpredictability of high-scoring games, underdogs had been historically undervalued in games with high totals. However, we wanted to apply this same concept to NFL betting.

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Since 2003, NFL underdogs have gone 1,561-1,541 ATS (50.3%) during regular season and playoff games. This indicates that oddsmakers have done an exceptional job of setting lines over the past twelve years, but we believed that by looking at games with low totals we could improve these results.

The basic philosophy was that low-scoring games would have a more narrow range of potential outcomes, and this would disproportionately benefit the team getting points. The table below displays how the closing total has affected the performance of underdogs.

Total Range Record (ATS) Winning Percentage Units Won ROI
All 1,561-1,541 50.3% -51.05 -1.6%
<54 1,525-1,509 50.3% -53.48 -1.8%
<51 1,477-1,448 50.5% -37.97 -1.3%
<48 1,348-1,299 50.9% -12.63 -0.5%
<45 1,042-1,008 50.8% -13.09 -0.6%
<42 672-636 51.4% +6.03 0.5%
<37 166-150 52.5% +8.13 2.6%
<34 35-30 53.8% +2.89 4.4%

You can see that lower totals have corresponded with improved results for ‘dogs, however, this merely serves as one edge to consider — not a betting system that should be followed.

Past analysis has also revealed that home field advantage is hugely overrated by football bettors and large underdogs have been more profitable than small dogs. Both of these concepts fit perfectly into our contrarian philosophy.

You constantly hear the mainstream media discuss the importance of home games, but sportsbooks already shade their lines (typically 2-3 points) to account for this. Unlike baseball where the home team receives the last at bat of every game, there is no tangible in-game advantage to home field advantage in football with the exception of crowd noise.

While NFL underdogs have only won at a 50.3% rate historically, road ‘dogs have actually gone 1,063-1,017 ATS (51.1%) over the past twelve seasons. The table below analyzes the same closing totals ranges from earlier, but with a focus on visitors.

Total Range Record (ATS) Winning Percentage Units Won ROI
All 1,063-1,017 51.1% -2.27 -0.1%
<54 1,039-993 51.1% -1.53 -0.1%
<51 1,011-956 51.4% +9.02 0.5%
<48 921-851 52.0% +27.78 1.6%
<45 718-665 51.9% +20.17 1.5%
<42 469-429 52.2% +18.79 2.1%
<37 116-108 51.8% +2.77 1.2%
<34 23-23 50.0% -1.45 -3.1%

It’s also important to realize that many uneducated or “square” bettors will take the favorite no matter what the line is. Regardless of the line, a majority of public bettors will take the New England Patriots over the Jacksonville Jaguars. It doesn’t matter whether the line is -6.5 or -10.5, bettors will overwhelmingly flock towards the Patriots purely based on reputation.

Casual fans love to bet favorites and overs, so oddsmakers will typically shade their opening line to account for the inevitable influx of public money on large favorites and popular square teams (a la the Cowboys, Packers, Patriots). The larger the favorite, the more public support they will typically receive.

These shaded lines already create value for opportunistic bettors, but that value is once again amplified in games with low totals. Underdogs have covered the spread 50.3% of the time, road underdogs have covered the spread in 51.1% of their games, but double-digit road dogs have covered at a 52.1% rate. Alas, contrary to our immediate inference, double-digit road dogs have actually struggled in low-scoring games.

The table below displays the historical performance of double-digit road underdogs.

Total Range Record (ATS) Winning Percentage Units Won ROI
All 182-167 52.1% +3.89 1.1%
<54 178-161 52.5% +6.11 1.8%
<51 173-157 52.4% +5.49 1.7%
<48 161-136 54.2% +15.08 5.1%
<45 116-106 52.3% +2.81 1.3%
<42 68-74 47.9% -10.18 -7.2%
<37 15-14 51.7% +0.25 0.9%
<34 3-1 75.0% +1.77 44.2%

Although we assumed that double-digit underdogs would perform exceptionally well in low-scoring games (closing O/U of <42), those teams have actually struggled with a 68-74 ATS record including a 24-32 mark since the start of the 2009 season.

Knowing that road underdogs had performed well in games with low totals, but large underdogs had not lived up to expectations, we wanted to know whether we could look at the flip side of the equation.

This research revealed that road favorites had actually been quite profitable, posting a 507-483 ATS record with +3.81 units won. If underdogs performed well in games with low totals, it stands to reason that favorites would perform well in games with high totals. After all, each point becomes less consequential in games with lots of scoring.

The table below displays how road favorites have fared as we increase the closing total.

Total Range Record (ATS) Winning Percentage Units Won ROI
All 507-483 51.2% +3.81 0.4%
≥34 500-471 51.5% +9.17 0.9%
≥37 465-433 51.8% +13.40 1.5%
≥42 307-284 51.9% +11.23 1.9%
≥45 176-164 51.8% +6.35 1.9%
≥48 76-68 52.8% +5.35 3.7%
≥51 32-29 52.5% +1.47 2.4%
≥54 8-10 44.4% -2.30 -12.8%

Our return on investment increases at every data point until we focus on closing totals of 48 or higher, at which point our edge begins to dissipate. It’s also worth pointing out that small favorites (-6.5 or less) have been significantly more profitable than favorites of at least a touchdown. Since 2003, road favorites of 7+ have gone just 88-118 ATS (-30.4 units) while road favorites of 6.5 or less have gone 419-365 (+34.2 units).

There are a number of additional factors that bettors should consider before placing a wager, so make sure to read through our NFL archive for some of the most profitable trends and betting systems. Bettors should also be sure to bookmark our free NFL odds page for the latest lines, public betting percentages, injuries and more.

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David Solar is the Content Manager for Sports Insights and can be reached directly at

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David Solar

David Solar is the Content Manager at Sports Insights. He specializes in sports betting analytics and creating data-driven betting systems. He can be reached directly at or on twitter at @TheDavidSolar.

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