NFL Regular Season Wins


King Yao is the author of Weighing the Odds in Hold‘em Poker, and Weighing the Odds in Sports Betting. He uses his experience from making millions in financial derivative markets and translates it into gambling. Since he left his trading position, he has been playing poker and betting on sports. He travels to Las Vegas frequently, especially during football season.

NFL regular season win (RSW) totals are popular bets and commonly available at many sportsbooks before the start of a season. You can bet for or against a team by taking the over or the under. In other futures lines, such as who will win the Super Bowl, the high vigorish (“vig”) that most sportsbooks build into their lines makes it tough to find any justifiable wagers. You can bet on a team to win the Super Bowl in those lines; but you cannot bet against a particular team to win the Super Bowl. Many sportsbooks take advantage of this and offer odds on the 32 NFL teams that add up to greater than 150%. Some sportsbooks have the gall to offer cumulative lines in excess of 200%! In that environment, it is tough to find any worthwhile wagers.

For RSW totals, sportsbooks are willing to take bets on both sides. You can bet on a team either to win more games than expected or to win fewer games than expected. Since you can bet on nither side, the sportsbooks must offer relatively fair lines so they have balanced action. These fairer lines give smart bettors a chance to find some positive-EV wagers.

This article presumes you have already made your own analysis on the relative strength of each team. But that alone is not enough to find positive-EV bets in RSW totals. The following skills are also needed to exploit inefficiencies in the RSW total markets, and they are discussed throughout this article.

  • Projecting lines for games in the future
  • Understanding how the football betting market works
  • Understanding the risk, rewards and opportunity costs of long-term wagers
  • Understanding how to compare and contrast one line to another to find the best value

Sum of Wins is at Most 256

There are 32 teams in the NFL and they each play 16 games. This means there can be no more than 256 wins spread among the 32 teams. (32 x 16 / 2 = 256)

Although rare, ties sometimes do happen in the NFL. A tie is not a win with regards to the RSW wager, nor is it considered a half-win. For the purposes of RSW totals, a tie is the same as a loss. Thus it is possible for the total number of wins for all teams combined to be lower than 256 if there are one or more ties during the season.

A maximum of 256 wins during the season is a simple fact, but it is still an important one to consider. Most sportsbooks shade their NFL RSW totals toward the high side. This is probably because most bettors like betting on a team rather than against. Tourists, for example, are more likely to bet on their favorite teams to go over the total. The sportsbooks are expecting more bets on the over than the under, and they shade their lines accordingly.

While in Las Vegas late one summer, I added up the total number of wins from one of the major sportsbooks. The lines were typical of lines at other sportsbooks. The RSW totals at this sportsbook added up to 262 -- six more than the 256 maximum. Caution: Blindly betting all the unders does not have positive EV due to the vigorish that the sportsbook charges. On average, you lay -115 to bet the over and -115 to bet the under (a 30 cent margin). Although you cannot blindly bet the under profitably, the fact that the sum of the wins adds up to 262 means that if there are positive-EV bets to be found in RSW totals; they are more likely to be on the under than the over.

Rate Each Game

A good step in evaluating RSW totals is to assign a game line to each game for each team. Do not do it for any single team alone; do it for the whole league. Stay within the guidelines of 256 wins for the entire league. If you assign the Patriots a 75% chance of beating the Bills, you should assign the Bills a 25% chance of beating the Patriots in the same game. If you are more comfortable with point spread lines, then project those first and then convert them into money lines or win percentages.

Some bettors make the mistake of assigning a straight win or loss in a particular game solely based on the expectation that the team will be a favorite or underdog. Reporters, commentators and analysts in the media often make this mistake. Certainties and absolutes do not exist in the NFL. Instead, you should be dealing with probabilities. A team that is expected to be the favorite in every game is not expected to go 16-0 for the season.

Strength of Schedule

The strength of schedule should be built into the expected line you project for each team and each game. For example, you may notice that some good teams are not projected to have great win-loss records because they have a tough schedule coming up. On the other hand, some average teams may be expected to have decent win-loss records because they play soft schedules. Projecting individual lines for each game based on the opponents takes the strength of schedule into effect. Over a 16-game season, quality of opponents can matter a lot.

Compare to Posted Lines

A good way to check your work is to compare the lines you projected with the NFL Games of the Year lines put out by some sportsbooks before the season starts.

Some sportsbooks offer “NFL Games of the Year,” but with lower limits than on current games. The lines have information value. If the books’ lines do not match closely with the lines you made, then you should take a closer look at your own lines. You may be inspired to make some adjustments. Or, if you still agree with your original work, you may have found solid bets on individual Games of the Year.

This is part of an occasional series of articles.

Excerpted with permission from the e-book version of Weighing the Odds in Sports Betting by King Yao, edited for this format.


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