Last week, the Green Bay Packers needed to beat an also-ran opponent to preserve their season and give themselves a chance to make a playoff run upon the return of their best player from an extended absence. It seemed like a unique set of conditions, a story line crafted for maximum drama that could happen only once. Except it is going to happen again this Sunday, for a different team, under nearly identical circumstances.
The Dallas Cowboys hope to mimic the way Green Bay provided Aaron Rodgers an opportunity to lead them to the NFC playoffs. The reigning NFC East champions will attempt to ensure their final two games of the season, when Ezekiel Elliott returns from a six-game suspension, will be relevant to the playoff picture, by beating the Raiders in Oakland.
The Cowboys went 5-3 with Elliott and 2-3 without him, leaving them at 7-6 and clinging to hope outside the NFC playoff picture, tied with the Packers and Lions for the eighth position, behind 8-5 Atlanta and Seattle. After they play Oakland, the Cowboys will host the Seahawks and finish at Philadelphia. If they lose, they’ll be done. But if they can win all three — the last two with Elliott — the Cowboys have a shot.
The Packers barely stayed alive in their final two games without Rodgers, beating both the Buccaneers and Browns in overtime. That made Rodgers’s return from a broken collarbone possible. After exams Monday and discussions throughout Tuesday between medical personnel and team executives, Rodgers was cleared to play.
Elliott’s case is not quite the same, or as much of a potential feel-good story. Elliott missed six games stemming from a domestic assault allegation, for which he was never charged. The NFL found enough evidence, in its view, to suspend him, which prompted Jerry Jones’s revolt against Commissioner Roger Goodell and the contract extension other owners had already approved.
Still, Elliott’s ensuing return sets up a crucial game for Dallas on Sunday. The Cowboys have been getting whole with the returns of left tackle Tyron Smith and linebacker Sean Lee — perhaps their most important players. Stephen Jones said he expects Elliott, who cannot even set foot on the Cowboys’ facility until Monday, to return fresher and lighter.
Backups Alfred Morris, a former 1,000-yard rusher, and Rod Smith have been adequate replacements, but the Cowboys rely uniquely on Elliott. His power, and ability to turn a two-yard gain into a four-yard gain, sets up their entire play-calling and offensive structure. It makes life easier on quarterback Dak Prescott and helps the Cowboys’ offense stay on the field — a necessity for a defense that is on the smaller side and lacks stars, especially in the back end.
A victory Sunday over the reeling Raiders would make the final two games of the season interesting, but it would guarantee nothing. The Cowboys will need more help than Green Bay, partly because the Packers beat them earlier this season. If the Packers win out, according to the New York Times’ playoff odds calculator, they will have a 93 percent chance to make the postseason. If Dallas does the same, it would make the playoffs 61 percent of the time.
The Cowboys’ hopes may depend, oddly, on what the Eagles do in the next two weeks. They’ll finish the season at the Eagles, which might be a blessing if Philadelphia wraps up home-field advantage by Week 16. If not, then the Cowboys will have to beat one of the best teams in the NFL, on the road, just to have a chance.
On Sunday, Rodgers will stand behind center for the Packers against the Panthers, his season still crackling with possibility. The Cowboys can provide the same opportunity for themselves with Elliott, so long as they win in Oakland.
>>> Roger Goodell plans to retire after his recently signed contract extension runs out in 2024, Mark Maske reports. “The commissioner has been clear he views this as his final contract,” said Joe Lockhart, the NFL’s executive vice president of communications and public affairs. Goodell will help NFL owners find his successor. (It should be a real challenge to find someone who wants to run the NFL for $40 million a year in the next eight years.)
>>> The AFC playoff race is slightly confusing. The Bills and Ravens are tied for the final wild card spot with the Bills at 7-6. But if the Ravens and Bills both win out, the Ravens would beat the Bills in a tiebreaker. Jeff Zrebiec runs through the scenarios. The bottom line: The Ravens control their own fate with a closing schedule of Browns, Colts and Bengals.
>>> It has been an NFL season defined, in large part, by pain. Greg Bishop shows the effects of pain on players through the carnage of one week.
>>> Jimmy Garoppolo will start in San Francisco for the first time, Eric Branch writes. In his first two starts, Garoppolo passed for more than 300 yards in a pair of 49ers victories — matching their win from the previous 26 games. With Garoppolo at quarterback, the 49ers can be a pesky opponent for three playoff aspirants down the stretch: the Titans, Jaguars and Rams.