The main market on NFL matches is the handicap line. Most bookmakers will offer a number of points' start to one team, which when added to the match result provides the handicap result. The majority of bookmakers will use half-point handicaps, which rules out the possibility of a tie.
When full-point handicaps are on offer, most firms void bets on handicap ties. Many firms will offer 10-11 each team on this market, and betting with those who persist in money-grabbing 5-6 offers is not advised unless the handicap itself is way out of line. The days of minimum trebles restrictions are just about a thing of the past now, with singles allowed across the board. All of this makes American football a fundamentally more punter-friendly sport than rugby union or league, where handicap ties still occur to make a regular number of matches virtual skinners for the bookies.
Las Vegas oddsmakers are extremely good at handicapping the sides and most British firms will take a position close to the prevailing US price, known as the Vegas line, albeit a little to either side if they have a strong opinion or position. Some firms change their handicap as betting progresses in the lead-up to the game, while others hold their lines and change the odds on each team.
Over the course of the 2003 season, the US handicappers were so accurate that virtually 50 per cent of games saw the favourite cover the handicap (win by more points than they were penalised in the market) with the other 50 per cent of matches favouring those who backed the underdog (matches in which either the favourite won by fewer points than the handicap line or the underdog won the match outright).
It is all too easy to assume that the supposedly better team will win a game and be sucked into fancying too many favourites. Yes, the better team might win, but will they win by enough to cover the handicap? It is an obvious point, but one which is worth emphasising.
Always remember that teams are not playing to cover the handicap. In the NFL all that matters is winning and losing. The margin of victory is inconsequential. This can lead to the infuriating situation known to all NFL punters of a team which, for example, needs to win by seven points to cover the handicap line, holding a six-point lead and having the ball at their opponents' goal line with one minute to play, yet making no attempt to score what to the punter is the most important point of all and meekly allowing the clock to run down to zero.
To a coach it is simple. He needs no more points - running up the score to win by wide margins is in fact not the done thing -and to run more offensive plays would jeopardise his guaranteed victory by risking a fumble or interception if his team went for a touchdown or a blocked field-goal attempt was returned for a touchdown.
Always check how the teams match up against each other tactically. Ranking of teams' relative strengths at running and passing the ball and stopping those actions defensively are available and mismatches can occur. NFL coaches spend hours studying videotape of each others' games and will exploit it ruthlessly. If something works - for example putting their fastest receiver against a cornerback who simply can't cope with his pace - they will go at it again and again until the defensive team finds a solution.
If there is not much difference between one team's offensive rushing ranking and their rivals' defensive rushing rating, it should be competitive battle in that area.
If one is the best rushing team in the league, maybe due to the strength of their offensive line or the skill of their running back, and the other is ranked last at stopping the run, maybe due to defensive line injuries or bad tactics, for example, there is every reason to expect that team to move the ball easily.