Pair of teams fighting for playoff survival meet on the West Coast
One. More. Week. That’s all the Cowboys need to last without star running back Ezekiel Elliott. Without Elliott in the lineup, the team has gone 2-3 but remained on the fringes of playoff contention despite an inconsistent offense. One victory, this Sunday against the Raiders leaves the team at 8-6 and facing a possible wild-card elimination game against the Seahawks next week.
One. Game. Back. That’s where the Raiders sit after a debilitating loss to the Chiefs squandered an opportunity to take surprise control of the AFC West. Now, sitting at 6-7, the Raiders are a game behind the division lead. In order for their regular-season finale against the Chargers to mean something, they need to win Sunday and then hope a wounded, Carson Wentz-less Eagles squad remains vulnerable in Week 16. This team, with losses to the Bills and Ravens, loses most postseason tiebreakers, which makes a division title imperative for playoff eligibility.
What we have, then Sunday is a virtual elimination game between two teams that started the year with Super Bowl-level expectations. You have two quarterbacks with disappointing seasons facing off for the right to not just survive but perhaps even protect their head coach’s job. Two of the most polarizing teams in the NFL enter on the verge of cleaning house but only one will leave in a downward spiral.
Who can hang on by the skin of their teeth?
Dallas at Oakland
Kickoff: Sunday, Dec. 17 at 8:30 p.m. ET
TV Channel: NBC
Spread: Cowboys -3
Three Things to Watch
1. Which Dak Prescott will show up?
Prescott (above, right) slumped badly during the first three games of Ezekiel Elliott’s suspension, losing all three while failing to throw a touchdown pass. But that 0 TDs, 5 INTs stretch is in the rear-view mirror, combatted by a 5 TDs, 0 INTs two-game torching of the Redskins and Giants.
Toppling those division rivals turned Dallas back in the right direction. But Prescott also was doing the dirty work against bad teams. The Redskins sit at 5-8, half their team on injured reserve and have dropped four out of the last five games. As for the Giants? Their two wins leave them in line to pick second in the 2018 NFL Draft.
The Raiders offer a much larger challenge, a team playing for their collective playoff lives despite being a game under .500. Can Prescott keep rolling?
A key to his continued success will be Dez Bryant. Bryant has touchdowns in back-to-back games and has come to play as of late in what has otherwise been an on-again, off-again season. With the running back situation in flux, Bryant still can beat the defense deep at any moment. He just needs to find a way to keep connecting with Prescott.
2. Can Oakland’s anemic offense fix itself?
The Raiders, once known for their punishing running game, haven’t been able to generate yards on the ground in 2017. Their 91.5 rushing yards per game rank 27th in the NFL and they’ve gotten just one 100-yard performance from Marshawn Lynch (right).
Lynch, who came out of retirement to play this season, has been a disappointment and a potential cancer in the locker room. His one-game suspension for making physical contact with an official was costly; the Raiders lost 34-14 to the Bills in his absence. That head-to-head tiebreaker could make the difference in which team sneaks into the playoffs and which one is sitting home come January.
When the Raiders run for at least 100 yards they’re 4-3 as opposed to 2-4 when they fall short. Lynch has the offensive line to get the job done; they’ve allowed just 17 sacks, better than all but a handful of teams. Lynch also had 8.7 yards per carry last Sunday in a losing effort as the Raiders abandoned the run too soon (just seven total rushes by Lynch overall).
But the run game isn’t the only problem. David Carr has looked nothing like the quarterback dominating opposing defenses a year ago. Top wideout Amari Cooper has gained just 143 yards the past six weeks after a lopsided 210 in one game against the Chiefs. Michael Crabtree has just one game with a catch in the last three (was suspended for a game).
Overall, there’s no one out there scaring opposing defenses, the type of multi-dimensional threat a suspended Elliott gives the Cowboys. Someone has to have a breakout day and find a way to produce against a Dallas defense that’s vulnerable. The Cowboys rank 23rd against the pass and a middling 19th overall.
3. Turnovers, turnovers, turnovers
The Raiders have been sloppy; only six NFL teams have turned the ball over more than their 20 giveaways. Their minus-10 turnover margin ranks third worst in the league ahead of only the lowly Broncos and Browns.
It’s no coincidence, then that the Raiders are 3-0 in the three games they’ve remained turnover free. The Cowboys? They’re 6-0 when not committing a turnover.
You can see where we’re heading here. The first mistake by either team could easily be the last nail in the coffin for their season.
The Cowboys need to be extremely careful not to look ahead towards Ezekiel Elliott’s return next week. Just use the Packers for proof; they almost gave a game away against the winless Browns last week while anticipating Aaron Rodgers getting cleared from his collarbone injury.
On paper, Dallas is the better team while Oakland has been maddeningly inconsistent. The last team the Raiders beat with a winning record was the Chiefs back in Week 7. But the national spotlight combined with the team’s last home game of the season (where they’re 4-3) has me smelling an upset. They’ve allowed less than 100 rushing yards in six of their seven home games and a good defensive effort would be enough to stall the Elliott-less running game of the Cowboys.
Marshawn Lynch will need a solid performance and this team needs to play clean. But the Raiders are capable of getting the job done here.
Prediction: Raiders 24, Cowboys 20
— Written by Tom Bowles, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @NASCARBowles.