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Faster Starts Will Be Critical For The Cowboys To Make Playoffs

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Gaining an early lead in games is a critical yet sometimes underappreciated factor in winning games in the NFL. For the Cowboys, it could mean the difference between going 3-1 or 1-3 down the stretch.

Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

In this morning's news post, Tom Ryle quotes David Moore of the Dallas Morning News on the importance of avoiding slow starts to games because it's easier to win a game when you jump out in front at the very beginning.

The best way to eliminate any doubts that crept in with the loss to Philadelphia and to avoid what happened when the Cowboys traveled to the shores of Lake Michigan this time last year is to get off to a fast start.

Look, no one said the Nobel Prize committee was going to recognize this theory for original thought. But this is something the Cowboys must do for their emotional and strategic well-being as they enter an arduous December stretch.

"It's critical," Garrett said. "It's critical to start fast and to make stops."

This year, the Cowboys are 7-1 when they went into the half tied or with the lead. They are 2-3 when they went into the half trailing.

Their only loss when playing with a lead at halftime came against the Redskins in Week 8. The Cowboys went into the half with a 7-3 lead but eventually lost the game in overtime.

The two wins in which they overcame halftime deficits were against the Rams in Week 3 and the Giants in Week 12. In both cases, they overcame 11-point halftime deficits.

Here's how those numbers stack up against previous seasons:

Cowboys record based on scores at halftime, 2010-2014

Cowboys leading
by halftime
Cowboys trailing
by halftime
Score tied
at halftime
Total reg.
season record
2010
W/L 4-1
1-9
1-0
6-10
2011 W/L 4-4
2-4
2-0
8-8
2012 W/L 3-0 4-6 1-2 8-8
2013 W/L 6-4 2-4 0-0 8-8
2014 W/L 6-1 2-3 1-0 8-4
Total W/L 23-10
11-26
5-2
38-38
in % .697 .297 .714 .500

When the Cowboys have held a halftime lead, they have the record of a playoff contender (23-10 translates into about an 11-5 record). When they've trailed at the half, their record looks like that of a team picking in the Top 10 of the draft (11-26 equals a 5-11 record).

A look at the total league numbers this year underlines the importance of gaining an early lead: of the 192 games played so far this season, 77% were basically decided by halftime, meaning the team that held the lead after the first half eventually won the game. Here's the winning percentage, by quarter, of teams that held the lead at the end of each respective quarter so far this season (numbers don't add up to the 192 games played through today because some games were tied at the end of a quarter):

NFL winning probability when in the lead, by quarter, 2014
1. Quarter 2. Quarter 3. Quarter
W/L 96-55 144-42
150-32
in % 64% 77% 82%

There's no question that jumping off to an early lead can be a big advantage. But another effect of playing with a lead is that it changes the way you play the game, on both offense and defense. We know that teams with a lead run the ball a lot more as try to protect that lead and try to minimize the mistakes that can happen when you throw the ball. We've seen how the Cowboys have abandoned the run and gone pass-heavy in the past to catch up.

When teams are playing from behind, they usually take more risks in the passing game, and those risks manifest in more interceptions. So far this season, only a quarter of all interceptions thrown in the NFL happened when the offense was playing with a lead. But almost two thirds of all interceptions were thrown when the offense was playing from behind.

Interceptions by score differential, 2014

Behind by 8
or more pts
Behind by 1-7
pts
Game
tied
Ahead by 1-7
pts
Ahead by 8
or more pts
Interceptions thrown 122 91 41 48 34
INT/Pass Attempts 2.9% 2.8% 1.7% 2.0% 1.7%

Once you're playing from behind, your ground game goes out the window, and you start taking more risks in your passing game in an effort to catch up. Not only do teams playing from behind throw the ball a lot more often than teams playing with a lead, they also have those passes intercepted more often. Similarly, a team playing with a lead will generally find it easier to record interceptions on defense. Of the 11 interceptions the Cowboys defense has recorded this year, eight happened when the Cowboys were playing with a lead, one when the score was tied, and only two when the Cowboys were behind.

The interception rate (interceptions divided by passing attempts) is higher when a team is behind, and the Pass/Run ratio tilts heavily towards the passing game when teams are playing from behind. Conversely, when playing with a lead, especially a big one, teams tend to run more than they pass, and they take fewer risks in the passing game, which in turn leads to fewer mistakes and turnovers.

Pass/Run ratio by score differential, 2014

Behind by 8
or more pts
Behind by 1-7
pts
Game
tied
Ahead by 1-7
pts
Ahead by 8
or more pts
Pass Attempts 4,257 3,295 2,376 2,373 2,012
Runs 1,808 2,074 1,898 2,047 2,393
Pass/Run Ratio in % 70% 61% 56% 54% 46%

We've seen that when the Cowboys get an early lead, they were not so easy to beat, especially this season. Getting that early lead is not an easy thing to do, but it will change the face of the game to the Cowboys' advantage: They can play a more controlled style of offense, they'll get more takeaways on defense, they'll score more points, and ultimately win more games.

"It's critical," Garrett said. "It's critical to start fast and to make stops."

The Cowboys will only be able to make a playoff push if they get early leads in their remaining games. The odds are that if they take a lead in each of their remaining games, they'll go at least 3-1 down the stretch. If they have to play from behind, there's a good chance they'll end up 1-3.