How to Bet Preseason NFL Games: Examining Historical Underdog, Road, and Total Trends

You can bet the NFL all sorts of ways.

You can factor in models, trends, matchups, instincts, injuries, and just about anything you want to get you to your conclusion.

Throughout the season, teams ebb and flow, and we start to notice some angles we can take. During the preseason, it's all a bit different.

Motivation questions are prevalent, and efficiency concerns abound.

So, what can we look to in order to help guide our decisions this preseason?

I dug back into some historical data (over the past two preseasons) to see which trends on favorites, spreads, and totals are worth knowing for NFL preseason betting.

Favorite/Underdog Performance

Since 2019 (there was no preseason in 2020, so the sample here includes just FanDuel Sportsbook numbers in 2019 and 2021) in 99 games not labeled as pick'ems, favorites are 62-36-1.

Notably, 2021 was much kinder to favorites than 2019 was, and favorites still are the better outright play.

FavoritesOutright Win Loss Tie Win% Avg Pt Diff
2019 27 25 0 51.9% -0.25
2021 35 11 1 76.1% 5.98
Totals 62 36 2 63.3% 2.71


What about spread performance, though?

Here's how those numbers look.

Favoritesvs. Spread SpreadWin SpreadLoss SpreadPush Cover% Avgvs Spread
2019 20 31 1 39.2% -3.21
2021 24 21 2 53.3% 2.18
Totals 44 52 3 45.8% -0.65


While favorites covered at a 53.3% clip in 2021, preseason underdogs historically have had value long-term, and specifically in 2019, they were 60.8% against the spread.

Here's a distribution of outright and spread success based on spread ranges.

Spread BucketGamesWin%Cover%
Favored by 5.5+1675.0%31.3%
Favored by 4.0 to 5.01566.7%40.0%
Favored by 3.51557.1%40.0%
Favored by 3.01758.8%53.3%
Favored by 2.51369.2%61.5%
Favored by 1.5 to 2.01546.7%40.0%
Favored by 0.5 to 1.0875.0%71.4%
Underdog of 0.5 to 1.0825.0%28.6%
Underdog of 1.5 to 2.01553.5%60.0%
Underdog of 2.51330.8%38.5%
Underdog of 3.01741.2%46.7%
Underdog of 3.51542.9%60.0%
Underdog of 4.0 to 5.01533.3%60.0%
Underdog of 5.5+1625.0%68.8%


Bigger favorites have come through outright often (teams favored by at least 4.0 points have won 71.0% of the time) but don't cover often (that same sample covered at a 35.5% clip).

Backing big favorites outright but taking the points with the big underdogs has been the right play the past two preseasons.

Home/Road Performance

Despite favorites faring well outright, that hasn't exactly translated into home performance being bankable.

Home TeamsOutright Win Loss Tie Win% Avg Pt Diff
2019 24 30 0 44.4% -1.09
2021 18 28 1 39.1% -3.43
Totals 42 58 1 42.0% -2.18


Last season was strange for home teams in particular, as the home squad won at just a 39.1% clip and held a point differential of -3.43.

What about spread trends for the home teams?

Home Teamsvs. Spread SpreadWin SpreadLoss SpreadPush Cover% Avgvs Spread
2019 27 26 1 50.9% 0.46
2021 14 31 2 31.1% -4.54
Totals 41 57 3 41.8% -1.87


Last preseason was particularly rough on the home teams.

That being said, when we combine conditions and look exclusively at road favorites, we see a 39-17-0 record (69.6%) in these two seasons with a 30-25-1 record against the spread (54.5%).

Home favorites won 54.8% of the time in these two seasons but covered at just a 34.1% rate.

Over/Under Trends

The average over/under for games in this sample is just 36.8 points, a very low number for regular season action but not for the preseason.

In fact, the under hasn't been low enough, making it pretty key in the preseason in recent years.

Over/UnderTrends Over Under OU Push Over% Avg PC Avg PC vs OU
2019 22 32 0 40.7% 36.39 -1.56
2021 20 28 0 41.7% 35.06 -0.52
Totals 42 60 0 41.2% 35.76 -1.07


While we definitely have strong road and underdog spread trends, this seems like the most natural edge we can find without trying to factor in as much injury and playing time news.

The over has been just 41.2% likely to hit since 2019.

This gets magnified as the total climbs. In games with a total of 40 or greater, the over is just 6-16 (27.3%). But even on the low end -- games with totals of 35 or lower, the over is just 40.6% likely.

So, if you see a very high (40-plus) or very low (under-35) total, the under seems like a strong play.

All that said, the average total for Week 1's preseason games on FanDuel Sportsbook is down to 33.5, meaning the lines are being set lower than we've seen in recent seasons. To help with that, here's a scoring distribution of how often games reached certain thresholds.

Over Frequency
27.5 77.2%
28.5 77.2%
29.5 71.3%
30.5 68.3%
31.5 66.3%
32.5 62.4%
33.5 57.4%
34.5 53.5%
35.5 49.5%
36.5 45.5%
37.5 42.6%
38.5 41.6%
39.5 34.7%
40.5 30.7%
41.5 27.7%
42.5 26.7%
43.5 23.8%
44.5 17.8%
45.5 16.8%


Since 2019, 57.4% of games have still gone over the 33.5-point total (again, the Week 1 average), but we'll have to be mindful of how things shake out moving forward and tracking to see if preseason over/unders remain lower than historical totals.

Takeaways

- We'll hear a lot about underdogs in the preseason, and they're strong spread bets (53.0%) but far from no-brainer outrights (36.0%).
- Bigger favorites (4.0 points or more) have good win rates (71.0%) but poor cover rates (35.5%).
- Road favorites have a 69.6% win rate in this two-season sample with a 53.6% cover rate; home-field advantage seems overrated.
- Unders remain the correct target on the total (58.8%), especially on the high end and low end (unders in games with totals below 35 or above 40 are 64.8%). However, they seem to be trending down in 2022, so take note.