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The Cowboys are still hanging on as they await Ezekiel Elliott’s return

The Cowboys must play one more game without suspended running back Ezekiel Elliott (Jae C. Hong/AP)
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EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — The way the Dallas Cowboys have it figured, there can be no more missteps. A season that began with them relatively entrenched as the Super Bowl favorite in the NFC has veered badly off course, reducing them to chasing a wild-card spot as a long shot at best.

But it’s not a no-shot possibility, at least yet. The Cowboys have not surrendered. Their huge aspirations for this season have not completely dissipated. But they acknowledged following Sunday’s 30-10 triumph over the New York Giants at the Meadowlands that any even somewhat realistic scenario of them reaching the playoffs almost certainly begins with them winning all their remaining games.

“We needed it,” tight end Jason Witten said. “We talked about it the last couple weeks. Our backs are against the wall. We know we need to win out . . . We knew coming in here they were gonna be a tough opponent. They always are — a lot of pride. I’ve got a lot of respect for Steve [Spagnuolo, the interim coach of the Giants] and the program he’s gonna run. It wasn’t perfect. We were able to grind it out and finally got it going there late in the second half.”

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Indeed, the Cowboys didn’t get their offense revved up until late in Sunday’s game, outscoring the Giants by a 20-0 margin in the fourth quarter. Quarterback Dak Prescott threw for 332 yards and three touchdowns. Wide receivers Dez Bryant and Cole Beasley and running back Rod Smith each managed to turn a short pass from Prescott into a huge play.

“Dak made some really good decisions and really good throws,” Cowboys Coach Jason Garrett said, “and the guys did the rest.”

The Cowboys’ Super Bowl hopes entering the season were pinned on Prescott and tailback Ezekiel Elliott, the NFL’s leading rusher last season as a rookie. They were the centerpieces of an offense that led the Cowboys to the top seed in the NFC playoffs in 2016 before they suffered a stunning loss at home to the Green Bay Packers in a conference semifinal. Even more was expected this season.

But Elliott’s six-game suspension by the NFL under the personal conduct policy threatened to undo everything from the beginning. The legal challenge by the NFL Players Association kept Elliott’s suspension on hold for half the season, but the NFL ultimately prevailed in court and Elliott and the NFLPA dropped their challenge.

Here’s the Cowboys’ very unlikely path to the playoffs

And the Cowboys’ season fell apart. They lost their first three games after Elliott’s suspension took effect. They believed they could get by with Prescott, their powerful offensive line and the combined efforts of backup running backs Alfred Morris, Darren McFadden and Smith. They were wrong.

The offensive line didn’t look quite as great without Elliott running behind it. Prescott wasn’t as effective without the threat of Elliott’s running to occupy the attention of opposing defenses. Morris and Smith weren’t good enough, and McFadden ended up retiring.

But the Cowboys have steadied themselves a bit, beating the Washington Redskins and then the Giants, both without Elliott. They must play one more game without him, this coming Sunday night at Oakland, before he’s eligible to return for a Dec. 24 home game against the Seattle Seahawks.

The Cowboys are out of the NFC East race thanks to the Philadelphia Eagles clinching the division title Sunday. The Cowboys, with a record of 7-6, remain a game behind the Seahawks and Atlanta Falcons for the second wild-card spot in the NFC. The Detroit Lions and Green Bay Packers also are 7-6.

So it remains a tall order for the Cowboys. But perhaps they have figured out something about playing without Elliott that they can employ next weekend against the Raiders, and then they can cross their fingers and hope his return will be a springboard to bigger things.

“It takes everybody,” Witten said. “We talk about it all the time as an offense: You never know when your number is gonna get called …. You can’t say enough about Dak staying with it — as a young player, just to have the poise to stay with it, stay with it, stay with it.”

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