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Cowboys @ Redskins: Why winning on first down will be key to success

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For the Cowboys and Redskins on Sunday, the game will likely be decided by which team wins on first downs.

NCAA Football: Arizona State at Colorado Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

Third down is often called the money down in football, because what happens on third down usually determines whether the offense gets a new series of downs. Which is why we talk about third-down conversion rate so much in football, and why third-down performance is such a big topic in the lead-up to games.

Heading into Sunday's game, the Cowboys have had a better third-down offense, while the Redskins have had the better third-down defense. Looking at offense and defense combined, there's not much of a difference between the two teams, as the table below shows.

Third Down Performance, 2017
Dallas Cowboys Washington Redskins
Offense (3rd down conversions made) 45.3% (5th) 39.5% (17th)
Defense (3rd down conversions allowed) 44.9% (26th) 41.8% (24th)
Third down differential +0.4% (16th) -2.3% (21st)

As much as we talk about third-down conversion rates, for the Cowboys and Redskins on Sunday, the game will come down to each team's success on first down - and especially on defending the first down. Here’s why.

The key to a successful third-down defense is an effective first- and second-down defense that puts opposing offenses in unfavorable third-and-long situations. Because if an offense gains six yards or more on first down, it has more options on the next two downs, which puts defenses at a disadvantage.

Back in 2006, when Mike Zimmer was the defensive coordinator for the Cowboys, Zimmer remarked on the disadvantage defenses have when they are in second-and-short:

"When it's second-and-4, it's tough to make (defensive) calls," Zimmer said. "You're behind the eight ball."

The Cowboys defense has done a pretty good job so far this year on first downs, limiting opponents to an average of 4.76 yards, the eighth-best value in the league. For the Cowboys defense, continuing to win on first down will be key to keeping the Redskins offense in check. Because if they're going to let the Redskins rip off six or more yards on first down, Kirk Cousins will make them look silly on second and third downs.

If the Cowboys are able to hold the Redskins to short or no gains on first downs, the Redskins offense would be much more limited in their offensive options, to the point where their offense could become lopsided and strongly favor the pass - in principle.

On offense, the Cowboys are ranked seventh in the league with with an average gain on first down of slightly more than six yards.

On both offense and defense, the Cowboys compare favorably against the Redskins on first downs, as you can see in the table below.

First Down Performance, 2017
Dallas Cowboys Washington Redskins
Yards gained (offense) 6.06 (7th) 5.31 (17th)
Yards allowed (defense) 4.76 (8th) 5.48 (22nd)
First down differential +1.30 (4th) -0.17 (18th)

The Cowboys and Redskins both favor the run on first down to get them into manageable second- and third-down situations. The Cowboys have run the ball on 57% of first downs so far, the Redskins on 64%.

The Cowboys are a strong first-down team, both on offense and (surprisingly) on defense.

If the Cowboys are successful on first down on Sunday against the Redskins, odds are they'll come out on top, because once the offense gets into manageable third-down situations, the Cowboys are going to be pretty hard to beat.

There'll be a lot of discussion about third-down performance before, during, and after the game on Sunday. But keep an eye on first downs; what happens on first down will ultimately determine what happens on third down - on offense and on defense.