Key Numbers in Sports Betting – NFL, NBA & More

There are some specific numbers worth paying attention to when you’re betting on sports. Those in the know call these “key numbers.” Understanding how these key numbers work can help you place better bets, especially on football and basketball games.

Keep reading if you’re interested in how key numbers work, what the key numbers are for certain sports, and why successful sports bettors are paying close attention to them.

What are key numbers in betting?

Key numbers represent typical margins of victory. Different sports have different scoring systems that make for different common margins of victory and, therefore, different key numbers.

The key numbers for a sport will almost always follow the scoring system. That means three and seven in football, because field goals are worth three, and kick-converted touchdowns are worth seven. In basketball, scoring includes three-point field goals, two-point field goals, and single-point free throws. The key numbers then become three, two, and one.

The thing is, one is not really considered a key number. Since scoring in sports like soccer and hockey is done by single goals, there really isn’t anything truly considered a key number in these sports.

The trick is to place point spreads and totals bets based on key numbers in the sports where they are a factor.

A key number example

Most NFL games are decided by three points, the value of a field goal. In close games, NFL teams are more likely to try to win with a field goal than anything else. If you’re paying attention to key numbers and you find a spread that deviates from this, it represents an opportunity to use this key number to make a better bet.

As a quick example, let’s say the Carolina Panthers are at home in a divisional game you think they will win. If the spread is set at -2.5, you can confidently bet the Panthers knowing they’re likely to win by three. Of course, if that spread is -3.5, crossing the key number threshold, you might want to consider betting against the home team.

How to use key numbers for spread betting

Point spread betting is the most popular way to bet on sports, and it’s all about the margin of victory. That means you can use key numbers to place point spread bets.

Point spreads generally even out the odds between teams by handicapping favorites and giving underdogs a better chance. Here’s an example from the NFL:

Carolina Panthers-3 (-110)
New Orleans Saints+3 (-110)

A spread like this means bets on the Panthers will win only if Carolina wins by four or more. Bets on the New Orleans Saints will win if they win the game or lose it by two points or one point. The numbers in brackets are the odds. As you can see, the odds are even for both sides. They tell you that a $110 bet will earn you a $100 profit if you’re on the right side.

Oddsmakers understand key numbers as well, which is why point spreads are so often set surrounding these numbers. However, that doesn’t mean there aren’t opportunities for you to use key numbers yourself.

Look for spreads set just over or under a key number like three. When oddsmakers make the spread +3.5 in a game you think the underdog might keep close or even win, that represents an opportunity for you to use this key number. Since so many NFL games are decided by three points, a +3.5 spread means there’s a good chance the underdog will cover. Even if they lose by a field goal, you still win the bet.

How to use key numbers for totals betting

You can also use key numbers for totals, or over/under bets. With totals, you are betting that the total number of points scored will be higher or lower than a line set by oddsmakers. Here’s another example from the NFL:

Carolina PanthersOver 43 (-110)
New Orleans SaintsUnder 43 (-110)

Here, the over wins on 44 points or more, and the under wins on 42 points or fewer. If the game ends with a total of exactly 43 points, it’s a push.

Remember, key numbers in sports betting are based on the scoring system. The fact that most points in NFL games are scored by three and seven means certain points totals that are increments of these numbers are more likely than others.

Let’s say the Panthers and Saints each score three touchdowns, and Carolina wins it 24-21 with a last-second field goal. This is a very typical scoring scenario that only includes key numbers. The total would be 45, and the over would come in.

While it’s ultimately up to you to decide whether a game will be high or low-scoring, opportunities to use key numbers in totals betting abound when oddsmakers set the total using a less-than-typical scoring scenario … that is, a total that doesn’t add up to a typical combination of field goals and single-point converted touchdowns.

You can even use key numbers to set your own totals and bet exact points scored bets that offer better odds.

See More: North Carolina Sports Betting Sites

Key numbers for NFL betting

As you can probably tell from the examples above, key numbers play a larger role in NFL betting than any other sport. Once again, this is because of the NFL’s scoring system.

The key numbers in NFL betting are 3 (field goal), 7 (single-point converted touchdown) and 10 (combination of the two). Most games in the NFL are decided by these key numbers. Close games are often decided by a field goal. In fact, approximately 15% of NFL games are decided by three points. After that, the most common margin of victory is a single touchdown (7% of all games), followed by one touchdown and a field goal.

Key numbers and NFL point spread betting

Let’s take another look at a typical NFL point spread example:

Carolina Panthers-3.5 (-110)
New Orleans Saints+3.5 (-110)

The three-and-a-half-point spread crosses the most important key number in NFL: three.

A spread like this means bets on the Panthers win if Carolina wins by four or more, but bets on the Saints win if they win or lose the game by three points, two points, or one point. Knowing that the most common winning margin in the NFL is three points means the Saints might be the better bet here.

If the spread was -2.5 instead, not crossing that key number threshold, Carolina would perhaps be the better bet. Basically, in using key numbers, you pick the team you think will win, then look at the spread to see if it crosses a key number and place your bet accordingly.

You’re looking for the times when the point spread is either a key number or just a little bit over or under a key number. Of course, this is not an exact science or some secret to winning all your bets. You still need to pick the right side and be aware of the fact that oddsmakers set lines with key numbers in mind. Key numbers are something to consider, but they’re not a surefire winning formula.

Shopping around for key numbers

For any game, you might find point spread variations across sportsbooks. Shop around, and you may find value in laying fewer points or taking more. You may even find one sportsbook with a spread that crosses a key number threshold when others do not.

If you like the Panthers and they are -3 at Caesars NC Sportsbook but -2.5 at DraftKings NC Sportsbook, placing a bet on Carolina at DraftKings makes a whole lot more sense. If the game ends on that all-too-common number of three, you’d win at DraftKings! But you’d only push at Caesars.

Key numbers and manipulating the spread

Sometimes you can buy or sell points on the spread by betting alternate spreads at different odds. With teasers, you can change the spread in your favor on a slate of games. This means you can choose your own point spread or manipulate the spread so it crosses a key number.

If the Carolina Panthers are at -2.5 (-110) but you think they are bound to blow out the Saints, you can bet them at -3.5 (+110) and increase your potential payout.

You can get better odds on a tougher spread and lay worse odds for a spread that’s more favorable to your side. In using key numbers, it’s OK to accept worse odds to move the spread so it crosses a key number threshold.

Manipulating the spread around key numbers can offer value. But it is still up to you to determine if that value truly exists and where.

Key numbers and NFL totals betting

Key numbers can be used to bet NFL totals by thinking in terms of the value of each typical score and the different combinations of those scores. That means combinations of three, seven and 10. The most common totals in NFL games are 41, 43, 37, 44, 51, 33 and 47, in that order. These are therefore the key numbers in NFL totals betting.

Look for times when the line is a key number. Shop around to find lines that are key numbers. If you otherwise like the under and the line is just over a key number, pounce on that opportunity.

If you otherwise like the over and the line is just under a key number, take advantage of that opportunity. Plus, while you’re at it, look for the highest totals available when you think a game will be low scoring and the lowest totals in games you think will be high scoring.

Key numbers in college football

College football betting isn’t that much different from betting on the NFL. The most common winning margins are still three, seven and 10.

The main difference is in parity. The NFL has it; college doesn’t. The average NFL game is closer than the average college football game. With so many blowouts, college football is far less predictable. This lack of predictability lessens the effect of key numbers in college football betting.

Also, more points are scored in the college game. That means the most common totals and key numbers for college football totals betting are different. They are 55, 51, 45, 59, 58, 52 and 41, in that order. Just keep in mind that these key numbers are less reliable due to the game’s unpredictability.

NBA basketball and key numbers

Basketball is a higher-scoring game than football, but each score is worth less. Ultimately, this makes the key numbers less significant. However, they can still be useful.

The value of each bucket is either two or three, plus one point for free throws. These are also the most common winning margins in games and therefore the first set of key numbers.

However, the value of each possession must also be taken into account when determining NBA basketball’s key numbers.

Teams give up late in games when it will take three possessions to win it. That makes seven a key number because a team that’s up by seven late is almost guaranteed to win. Conversely, teams foul and try to extend the game down by two possessions or fewer late in games. When a team is down by five points or less, all that fouling and game extension leads to more two-point wins than anything else. That makes two an even more important key number in basketball betting.

The other most common winning margins in basketball are five, six, eight, three and four—in that order. Just remember, common key numbers don’t come up as often in basketball as in football. Plus, there are no key sports betting numbers when it comes to basketball totals.

Still, it’s always a good idea to shop around and look for seven- and two-point spreads in basketball games. These key numbers are always something worth keeping in mind when betting on the NBA, even if they are not as much of a factor as in NFL betting.

MLB, MLS and NHL key numbers

Baseball, soccer and hockey are low-scoring games with simple scoring systems awarding a single point for each goal or run. As a result, key numbers are less important in betting on MLB, MLS and NHL games.

However, most games are decided by a single run or goal. That means you can use one the same way you use three as a key number in NFL betting. In other words, you can take advantage of this key number on underdogs you think can win when sportsbooks are offering +1 or better spread, since that one-goal winning margin is the most likely scenario.

When it comes to MLB betting, the most common total runs scored in a game is seven, then nine. You might be able to take advantage of these key numbers when betting on MLB run totals.

Key numbers unboxed

Just keep in mind that an understanding of key numbers alone won’t help you win bets. These numbers are simply tools for informing better bets. Understanding odds and research are even more important tools. That said, here’s a quick bullet-point list of the best ways to use key numbers when betting on sports:

  • Key numbers are more of a factor in football than in any other sport.
  • Key numbers can help guide point spread and totals bets in most sports.
  • Consider winners first and key numbers second.
  • Don’t base your whole sports betting strategy on key numbers.
  • Shop around for better lines and odds while keeping key numbers in mind.
  • Manipulate spreads around key numbers.
About the Author

Martin Derbyshire

Martin Derbyshire is Content Contributor with NC Sharp. He’s been writing online casino and sports betting content since 2007, making him a true industry veteran. Derbyshire has travelled to and written about casino, sports betting, and gambling culture all over the world, from the Las Vegas Strip and High Street Bookmakers in the UK to the casino resorts in the Special Administrative Region of Macau. Before immersing himself in the casino and gaming industry, Derbyshire earned a Post-Graduate Certificate in Journalism from Langara College in Vancouver, BC, and was a crime reporter in the Greater Toronto Area. Some of his top stories appeared in the Toronto Star. Derbyshire now lives with his family in Buriram, Thailand.