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Winning The Fourth Quarter Is Critical For Cowboys 2015 Season

Over the years, Jason Garrett has been consistent in emphasizing fourth quarter performance, but the results have not met expectations so far this year. Improved fourth quarter play in 2015 could be the difference between making the playoffs and a top 15 draft pick.

Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

When Jason Garrett was asked a few years back which stats the Cowboys pay the most attention to, he answered turnover differential and 'winning the fourth quarter,' because he believes they are the two stats most significantly correlated with winning in the NFL. Here's Garrett's exact quote from August, 2011.

There were a lot of games in the NFL that were within one score in the fourth quarter, and the teams that went to the playoffs won a lot of those games. Teams that did not go to the playoffs lost a lot of those games. It's really important to be good in the fourth quarter.

Note the specific metric Garrett was talking about: games that were within one score at some point during the fourth quarter. Not games that were decided by one score, which would be a metric you often see quoted when the topic of close games in the NFL comes up.

By looking at that specific metric, Garrett highlights a key dynamic about NFL games. On average, scores in the NFL are much closer during the fourth quarter than the final score indicates.

Let's take a look at the data: While only 21% (53 of 256) of last year's regular season games were decided by three points or less, at one point during the fourth quarter, the score differential in twice the number of games (40%) was three points or less. Two thirds of all games were within eight points at one point in the fourth quarter (169 of 256). Here's the full breakdown.

Games decided by one score, 2014

Games within one score
at any point in the 4th quarter, 2014
Point Difference
Number of Games Percent
Point Difference Number of Games Percent
8 or Fewer 110 of 256 43%
8 or Fewer 169 of 256 66%
7 or Fewer 98 of 256 38%
7 or Fewer 155 of 256 61%
3 or Fewer 53 of 256 21%
3 or Fewer 102 of 256 40%

Allow me to repeat what I just wrote for full effect: 40% of all NFL games last season were within three points at some point in the fourth quarter.

Garrett is emphasizing fourth-quarter performance for a very good reason. From 2011-2013, when the Cowboys went 8-8 each season, 31 of their 48 games were within three points at some point in the fourth quarter. That's 65%, or almost two thirds, of all games that were there for the taking for the Cowboys. And one of the reasons the Cowboys finished all three seasons the way they did is because their record in those 31 "three-point" games was a disappointing 15-16. How very 8-8ish.

That changed in 2014. The Cowboys only played in five "three-point" games and had a 4-1 record in those games.

Here's a look at games over the last four four years where the difference in points between the Cowboys and their opponents at one point during the fourth quarter was three points or less.

2011 2012 2013 2014
"Three-point" games
9 12 10 5
Non Playoff teams 4-5 7-5 4-6 4-1

And Garrett is right in pointing out that playoff teams do better in those games: playoff teams had a .691 winning percentage in these "three-point" games, non-playoff teams had a .397 winning percentage, as the table below shows.

2014 regular season "Three-point" games (102 of 256) Total Regular
Season W/L

W/L Percentage W/L Percentage
Playoff teams 47-19-2 .691 131-59-2 .682
Non Playoff teams 54-82 .397 124-196 .388

And as you can see, there's really isn't that much to see here. The playoff teams in 2014 had largely the same win percentage regardless of whether the games were close or not. Same picture for non-playoff teams, they generally struggled to win games, whether those games were close or not.

Which just goes to show that good teams find ways to win and bad teams find ways to lose, regardless the circumstance.

It's not hard to imagine that even a slight improvement in your fourth quarter performance could have a pretty strong impact on your overall W/L record, and for the Cowboys this year, winning the fourth quarter will be the difference between possibly making the playoffs and a top 15 pick.

Of the four games they played so far in 2015, three were "three-point games." The fourth quarter score was within three points against the Giants, Falcons, and Saints. The Cowboys kept those three games very close up until the fourth quarter, but in the end, they lost two of those three games.

We saw in a post on Tuesday that over the first four games, the Cowboys have allowed 47 points in the fourth quarter and overtime, the second highest total in the league. Almost half of all points allowed were scored on the Cowboys in the 4th quarter or OT.

And that's something the Cowboys have to fix. With the Patriots coming to town, the Cowboys may have bigger worries, but if they were able to keep the game tight going into the fourth quarter, they could have a chance at winning the game.

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