How to Pick NFL Upsets
Being able to predict big upsets in the NFL is a hugely profitable skill when it comes to sports betting. Betting on NFL upsets means you’re getting long odds and big payouts but there are lots of reasons it’s so hard to do consistently.
In this guide to choosing upsets in the NFL, we’ll cover the science and the art of betting on the underdog. We’ll tell you what to look out for when choosing long-shot bets and we’ll show you the stats to back it all up. We’ll cover:
- Tips and strategies for identifying an upset in advance
- Understanding the odds of upsets
- Different ways to bet on an upset
- The statistics behind upsets
- The history of upsets in NFL
What Is an Upset in the NFL?
An upset refers to a totally unexpected result. It occurs when the side of the bet that is heavily expected to win fails to do so. An upset is when the underdog wins against the heavily favored, more skilled team.
For example, check out the following lines:
- New England Patriots – 260
- Miami Dolphins + 230
The Patriots are the favorites and the Dolphins are the underdogs. If the Dolphins win the result will be considered an upset. As you can see from these lines, successfully choosing an upset is always more profitable than successfully backing the favorite.
Betting on upsets shares many similarities with betting on the public underdog.
By definition, betting on an upset means you’re getting longer odds than betting on the favorite. That means you always stand to win more from betting on an upset. However, also by definition, betting on an upset is also riskier as they happen less frequently.
Betting on upsets can be very profitable – but only if you are selective and can identify the right spots.
How to Predict an Upset in the NFL
In this section, we’ve put together a number of proven strategies for predicting upsets in NFL. Remember that you should consider all of these when selecting your bets: they are designed to be used alongside each other, not in isolation.
At the end of the day, upsets are always going to occur a minority of the time. You should be prepared that you may not win with most of your bets. The good news is that since the odds are always long, you don’t have to win all your bets to make a profit.
Pay close attention to the following strategies and you will find yourself regularly picking out the roughly 35% of NFL games that end in an upset.
Use Stats to Choose Upsets
We are starting with an obvious one which is true for virtually all types of betting. As tempting as it can be to bet with your gut instinct alone, or according to what your friends are saying, if you want to be a long term winner your predictions must be grounded in statistics.
The most useful information we have for predicting what will happen is what has already happened.
You don’t necessarily have to ignore hunches and emotions altogether, just make sure that you do your research to see how the stats back them up.
Chances are you’re already looking at some of these stats to make your regular bets. The recent form of each team is important – if one team has lost their previous five games and the other has won theirs, you have a pretty good idea of which way the momentum is going.
- Busy schedules are also a factor.
- Remember to check the rosters for injuries. An injury to a key player for the favorites can make a massive difference.
- Check out the weather forecast – bad weather tends to result in sloppy, low scoring games which favors upsets.
The more detailed your research the better. Maybe one team has lost their last few matches, but a closer look at the stats might tell a different story. Perhaps in each game they had more possession and made more yards, but lost due to bad luck or individual mistakes and the results are not representative of their ability.
Good statistical research can turn up anomalies like this, which are great for spotting upsets and staying ahead of the public.
Analyze Teams and Players
The playing styles of the teams determine what kind of match is likely to occur, which in turn can go a long way to telling us what result to expect.
Two teams with very strong defence but lacking in real offensive quality will likely result in a low scoring game determined by only a couple of points, which makes an upset more likely. When the style of the underdog plays into the strengths of the favorite, avoid betting on an upset.
This can be especially useful for predicting upsets in prop bets, which we will cover in the next section.
It’s not just the styles of the overall teams either. The playing styles of key individual players is very relevant, but it’s also worth looking more deeply than the headline players. Maybe one team is generally stronger than the other, but with an achilles heel like bad rush defence. The other team might be pretty average, but with a tight-end who has been making loads of rushing yards all season. This mis-match can tilt the game in favor of an upset.
The same goes for coaches – they have form just like players. Check out the coaches’ history against each other. Is the coach tactically flexible or does he consistently stick to one style and gameplan? If you are betting on a playoff game, how is the coach’s record in the postseason?
One thing to bear in mind is that big name players and coaches are more likely to have an effect on the betting lines, which brings us to our next tip…
Line Movement Creates Value for the Underdog
Line movement is a huge reason that betting on upsets can be so profitable.
What is Line Movement?
Line movement is how odds change over time.
There are lots of reasons bookmakers change the odds, also called moving the line, including injuries or team selection. Very often though, the line is moved in response to how the public is betting.
Remember that bookmakers usually want to balance their action, meaning they want to have the same amount of money on each side of the bet. This allows them to always make a profit regardless of the outcome of the bet, based on the 10% commission charged on most bets.
If the public is heavily betting on one outcome, you can expect the bookmaker to make the odds of the other outcome more attractive to attract more action to that side of the bet.
Timing your bet effectively according to line movement means you can expect significantly better odds. This is especially applicable to betting on upsets, since the public loves betting favorites.
Why Does the Public Love to Bet on Favorites?
There are a number of things at play here, but a lot of it boils down to the fact that the casual sports fan is likely to bet on the biggest names. People love to bet on star players and high scoring games a lot more than they love sitting down and crunching the numbers.
The media plays a big part too. The more press attention a team or player gets the more likely it is people will bet on them.
Line movement typically tells you how the public is thinking, which should be another consideration for you when identifying valuable upsets.
Read about betting against the public here.
Look Beyond Win-Lose Bets for Upsets
We typically think of an upset as a smaller team beating a bigger team, but really when it comes to betting an upset is simply when the less likely outcome happens. This means there are all kinds of ways to bet on upsets beyond the most common win-lose bets.
For example, say the Chiefs are playing the Ravens. Both are in a good run of form and have been scoring tons of points recently. The Chiefs are favorites and the bookmakers are predicting a high scoring game. Now, maybe you think the Chiefs will win, but you disagree that there are going to be a lot of points. Despite their recent high-scoring games, both offences look tired and both defensive units look solid.
In this case, you can look for a prop bet that reflects your prediction, say that both teams will score less than 14 points. If the Chiefs run out 13-7 winners you can win a lot of money, even though the favorite still won the game. The upset in this case was that the game was so low scoring compared to expectations.
We will look at upsets for different types of bets in the next section. Just be aware that identifying an upset does not necessarily mean you need to predict that the underdog will win the game. There are all kinds of ways to exploit upsets, and looking beyond straightforward win-lose bets is an important tactic.
The Best Ways to Bet on an NFL Upset
In this section we’re going to explain the math behind how to profitably bet on upsets.
Choosing an upset to bet on is about more than identifying a match you think the underdog may win. Instead it’s about identifying a spot where the odds available on the upset represent good value compared with what you think is likely to happen. This comes down to something called implied probability.
Implied probability (or the implied odds) refers to what the odds indicate the chances are of each side of the bet winning. This is done by converting the odds into a percentage, and it’s easiest to figure out using a free sports betting calculator online.
Let’s look at some examples to see how implied odds can help you make smarter bets.
Moneyline bets are straight up wagers on which team will win the game. They’re also one of the bets where you can find the longest odds for betting on the underdog to upset the favorite.
- New England Patriots – 260
- Miami Dolphins + 230
In this line, the implied probability of each team winning looks like this:
- New England Patriots 72%
- Miami Dolphins 30%
After some research, you’ve found a few reasons to believe that the Pats are going to lose this game.
- They are missing two of their first choice linebackers.
- They come into the game on a four-game winning streak, but they have barely scraped over the line in each game.
- You’ve checked the history and the Dolphins have beaten the Pats the last couple of times they have played.
Nevertheless, they are still a better team. You give the Dolphins around a 1 in 4 shot of winning, which is 25%. The line from above indicates an implied probability of 30% so it’s tempting, but you are not getting good enough value on your prediction.
As the game gets closer, media hype starts to kick in. The reputation of the Patriots means that they get all the coverage. The casual fan knows all about the pedigree of Brady and Belichick. The bets start pouring in on the Pats. In response, the bookmaker moves their lines to balance the action, so it now looks like this:
- New England Patriots – 400
- Miami Dolphins + 355
The implied probability now looks like this:
- New England Patriots 80%
- Miami Dolphins 22%
Now your prediction of a 25% shot for the Dolphins is looking great. You can back the Dolphins at +355, thanks to your original analysis, attention to implied probability and patience to wait for the line to move.
This is a textbook example of how to bet on an NFL upset using a moneyline bet.
A successful moneyline bet is probably the most common way to win big thanks to identifying an upset, but there are other types of bets to help you take advantage of upsets too.
Point spread betting is the most popular way to bet on the NFL. Betting on an upset on the spread means you have a far better chance of winning, but you stand to win significantly less.
When betting on the spread, the odds are generally -110. Each team is then given a margin of points that the bookmaker thinks will even up the difference between the teams: basically an artificial “head start” for the underdog. In our final line above, the spread might look like this:
- New England Patriots – 8.5 (-110)
- Miami Dolphins + 8.5 (-110)
If you bet on the Dolphins on the spread, all they have to do is not lose by 9 points or more, and you win the bet.
This is a more conservative way to bet on upsets. The point spread moves just like the moneyline, and all the same strategies apply. The only real difference is you risk less to win less.
Points totals bets are another way to exploit upsets. A totals bet is basically betting whether you think the total number of points will be over or under a certain value. Like point spread bets, the odds are generally around -110.
In our example line, the totals could look like this:
- New England Patriots vs Miami Dolphins
- Total: 42.0 Over (-110) Under (-110)
Like we said before, predicting an upset does not have to start and finish with betting on an underdog to win. If you think the bookmakers are vastly overestimating how high-scoring the game is going to be, you can bet that it will be low scoring. Vice versa, if everybody is expecting a cagey affair but you expect a blowout, you can bet on the Over.
Like point spread betting, totals bets tend to be less risky since the odds are generally around -110.
When we think about betting on an upset, we typically imagine a very unexpected result which wins us a lot of money.
Spread bets and totals are good ways to bet on an upset with more security even though you won’t get that huge payday.
These days you can bet on just about anything in most NFL games, which makes prop bets a really effective way to exploit upsets. If your research leads you to a conclusion that you think is not being reflected by the bookmakers, props give you lots of creative ways to cash in.
You think the underdog doesn’t have enough to win but you know the quarterback is throwing hot? You can bet on him to throw for 300 yards. You think the underdog does have enough to win but always fades as the match goes on? Bet on them to win the first quarter, or first half.
If you stop thinking about upsets as being about winners and losers, and instead see the potential for hundreds of little upsets every match, the door is opened to loads more bets.
How Common Are NFL Upsets?
Upsets occur in NFL around 35% of the time. Since 2008, there have been a majority of underdog winners in 10 separate NFL weeks. The week with the most upsets was Week 10 of 2015, when 11 dogs won out of 15 games.
One study found that of all NFL games that closed with a 3 point spread, the favorites won 57% of the time in the regular reason and 67% of the time in the postseason. This would suggest that upsets are less likely to occur during the postseason.
Nevertheless, due to their popularity post season games are likely to attract more action on the favorites, leading to line movement which typically results in improved odds for underdogs. This suggests that although there may be fewer upsets in postseason games, successfully identifying them can be more profitable than in the regular season.
Which Weeks Have the Most Upsets in the NFL?
The margins are small and the stats vary a lot in this regard, but when considered against the spread underdogs have historically been most successful in September. This is probably down to early season variation when teams, players and coaches are still adjusting to the new year. Since 2003, underdogs have beat the spread more than 52% of the time in September.
Biggest NFL Upsets of All Time
Every now and again the NFL fixtures throw up such a mismatch that a huge point spread will make headlines. Usually this curiosity is quickly forgotten once the favorites dispatch their opponents, but occasionally the unthinkable happens.
This occurred most recently in 2018, when the Buffalo Bills began their match against the Minnesota Vikings as 16.5 point dog. The Vikings were unbeaten and looked like they were cruising to the Super Bowl, until the Bills blitzed them with a shock 27-0 lead at half time, and holding out for a 27-6 lead by the end.
Since 1995, a 14 point underdog has only won 14 times in the NFL.
And some of the most famous upsets happened on the biggest stage of all.
Take the free-scoring St. Louis Rams, AKA the “greatest show on turf”, who finished the 2001 regular season with a 14-2 record and were handed an eye-watering 14 point spread against the unfancied Patriots in Super Bowl XXXVI.
In one of the all time Super Bowl shocks, a young Tom Brady presided over a tactical match which resulted in a 20-17 win for the Patriots.
Six years later the Patriots were on the wrong end of a historic upset in Super Bowl XLII, as they were bidding to become only the second team after the Miami Dolphins to post a perfect season. Their opponents, the 13 point dog New York Giants, had scraped into the playoffs as a Wild Card team with a record of 10-6. Despite leading 14-10 with 2:42 on the clock, an Eli Manning inspired 83 yard drive was enough for a shock 14-17 Giants win.
The original upset however will always be Super Bowl III back in 1969. The AFL, represented by the New York Jets, were still searching for its first Super Bowl win, and the NFL’s Baltimore Colts were a huge 18 point favorite. When Joe Namath led the Jets to a 16-7 upset the perception of AFL teams was changed forever, and one of the most iconic upsets in sports history was assured.
Start Betting on NFL Upsets Now
If you live in a state that already has legalized sports betting, you can start predicting and betting on upsets in the NFL right now.
Check out our US online sportsbook reviews to find the site that’s right for you and use the info in this guide to cash in on the next underdog upset now.