5 Advanced NFL Handicapping Strategies

Closeup of NFL Football Players

You need to take a close and unbiased look at how you’re currently handicapping NFL games if you’re not getting the results you want. You can’t beat the sportsbooks if you’re not using the right information when you handicap games.

Most NFL bettors take a quick look at the standings and maybe the offensive numbers for each team and then make a bet.

Winning bettors learn how to dig deeper into each match up and evaluate games using things that normal bettors don’t use.

Here are five NFL betting strategies you need to start using that no one else uses.

1 – Defensive Drive Killer Plays

Every game in the NFL is a constant battle between the offense and defense. The offense has four downs to get 10 yards, but the truth is that most NFL coaches are so conservative that they only have three downs to get 10 yards.

If you track how offenses move down the field, there are certain things that can happen that tend to kill drives. It’s easy to see how an interception or lost fumble kills a drive, but there are also other things that stop most drives when they occur.

Sacks and tackles for loss are both disruptive plays that make it much more difficult for an offense to gain the required 10 yards for a first down. Offensive penalties also tend to kill drives. Incomplete passes and runs for no gain on first down also puts the offense in a bad position.

Closeup of NFL Players

The first advanced handicapping strategy I recommend using is tracking defenses based on their ability to produce drive killing plays. All of the things I mentioned above are negative results for offenses and should be tracked.

You might believe that offensive penalties don’t have anything to do with the defense, but if you track the best defenses in the game you can see that they force more offensive penalties than weak defenses force.

The simplest way to track and use defensive drive killing statistics is to divide all of the things I listed above that a defense creates by the total number of drives the defense is on the field. This gives you an easy way to compare defensive strength of each team in the league. You should also track the same numbers for each offensive team in the league to help you handicap games.

2 – Defensive 3 and out Percentage

A defense that forces the offense to play three plays and punt gives their team a large advantage. They stay fresh and rested to play better later in the game and they give their offense better field position.

Divide the number of three and out drives by the total number of drives a defense plays to get a percentage for each defense in the league. The teams with the highest three and out percentage on defense tend to be at the top of the standings.

On the other side of the ball, even when an offense doesn’t score, if they’re able to get a few first downs they help their defense rest and have a better chance of winning the field position battle. This means that you need to track the same percentages for offensive units for each team as well.

A defense with a high three and out percentage facing an offense with a high three and out percentage usually results in a low score for the offense. This is useful when you’re evaluating lines for spread bets and when you’re evaluating over/under betting lines.

On the other hand, a defense with a low three and out percentage facing an offense with a low three and out percentage usually results in a high score for the offense.

When you combine three and out percentages for defenses and offenses with drive killer percentages that I covered in the first section you can get an edge with your handicapping.

3 – Average Yards per Play by Down, Offense and Defense

Most NFL bettors don’t even consider yards per play for the offense or defense, but the ones that do rarely look at the numbers by down. First down is the most important down on every drive, yet most people focus on third down. Third down conversions is a stat that is readily available.

But what happens on first down is what sets up what happens on second and third down on every drive. A negative result on first down for the offense is usually a drive killer. Any time an offense loses yards on first down they’re at a large disadvantage.

A result of no gain on first down, either from an incomplete pass or a rushing attempt for zero yards is quite helpful for the defense and puts more pressure on the offense on second down.

A positive gain of one to four yards is helpful for the offense and opens up the playbook for second down options. A first down gain of five to nine yards puts the offense in a good spot and puts added pressure on the defense. Of course, a gain of 10 or more yards gains a new set of downs.

NFL Players Quarterback Throwing the Ball

Successful offensive teams tend to get positive yards on first down at a higher rate than unsuccessful teams. Successful defensive teams tend to limit the yards they give up on first down more than weaker teams.

You might think that teams with a higher average yards gained per play on third down have an advantage, but the opposite is usually true. Higher third down averages mean that the team is facing longer third down requirements than better teams.

Second down depends a great deal on what happens on first down, but it’s still useful to track how offenses and defenses perform on second down.

As you build a database that shows how every offense and defense performs on each of the three downs you can start seeing which teams do a better job and give their teams the best chance to win. This can be especially profitable when you’re evaluating games with a line close to even.

4 – Red Zone Percentages and Tendencies

It’s easy to find statistics that show red zone efficiency, but you need look at how teams perform in the red zone in a deeper way. The first thing I recommend is tracking the percentage of drives that get to the end zone out of the total number of drives for the offense and defense.

The next thing is to look at is the percentages for the offense and defense of how many red zone trips end in no points, three points, and touchdowns. Some defenses give up a lot of yards in the middle of the field and then tighten up in the red zone.

Winning teams are able to average more points when they get to the red zone and have defenses that limit the number of points when the opposing team gets into the red zone.

One thing to look for when you’re evaluating red zone production is teams with a quarterback who’s willing to run. Some NFL quarterbacks never run, but some give their team a red zone advantage by being able to get positive yards when all of their receivers are covered.

5 – First Down Tendencies

I mentioned the importance of first downs in an earlier section. Because first downs are so important to every drive, you need to learn the tendencies of each team on offense on first down. Some teams run more often than others on first down, but you need to dig deeper.

When a team passes on first down do they try a high percentage play most of the time or take a shot downfield? When a team runs on first down are they able to consistently gain positive yardage to put them in a better position on second down or do they tend to put more pressure on the offense on second down?

On the other side of the ball, how good is each defense on limiting yards on first down? Winning teams tend to win first down, yet most handicappers don’t evaluate first down results at all. If you want to be a winning NFL handicapper you need to learn the tendencies on first down for every team and know how the offense and defense for every team performs on first down.

If you don’t change anything else in your handicapping other than mastering your knowledge of first down tendencies and averages your results will improve.


I’ve never claimed that it’s easy to be a winning NFL handicapper. But with enough work you can learn how to make winning bets more often than losing wagers. Start working on the five advanced NFL betting strategies included on this page and your handicapping results are going to improve.

These aren’t strategies that most NFL bettors use, and this is a good thing. The best way to get better results than other bettors is to start doing things that they’re too lazy to do.