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Ezekiel Elliott returns; how can Cowboys make playoffs?

Ezekiel Elliott of the Dallas Cowboys

After serving his six-game suspension, Ezekiel Elliott can return to the Dallas Cowboys in preparation for their showdown with the Seattle Seahawks.

Dallas survived the stretch at 3-3, though it didn’t come without some nervous moments. The Cowboys dropped the first three contests while the Elliott-less offense sputtered, but they rebounded to earn three consecutive wins.

Now at 8-6, last season’s NFC East champions are still pursuing the playoffs, but they’re running out of time — and need a little help.

First and foremost, Dallas needs to defeat the Seahawks in Week 16. Nothing else matters unless that happens, because both teams will enter the clash at 8-6. There are enough teams in front of the Cowboys that a seventh loss will effectively eliminate their postseason aspirations.

Even if Dallas moves ahead of Seattle, the New Orleans Saints and Carolina Panthers are each 10-4 with a game remaining against the hapless Tampa Bay Buccaneers. An 11th win would put both franchises out of the Cowboys’ reach, so their primary focus is hopping the Atlanta Falcons.Dak Prescott Ezekiel Elliott Jason Garrett Dallas Cowboys

However, the Falcons own the head-to-head tiebreaker after smashing the Cowboys 27-7 in the first game of Elliott’s suspension. Dallas cannot advance to the postseason if it holds the same record as Atlanta.

After closing Week 15 against the Bucs, the Falcons still must play the Saints and Panthers. It’s not unreasonable to think they could finish the campaign 9-7.

Dallas takes on the Philadelphia Eagles, who have clinched the NFC East, in Week 17. Perhaps the Eagles will rest several key players, so Elliott and Co. cruise to a win.

But a 10-6 record doesn’t guarantee passage for the Cowboys. If the Detroit Lions win twice to end the season, Jim Caldwell’s team would be 10-6 and earn the tiebreaker by virtue of win percentage in common games.

Dallas must topple Seattle and Philadelphia while Atlanta loses twice and Detroit falls once. While possible, it’s really the only reasonable scenario.

Elliott’s return bolsters the Cowboys, but it might be too little, too late.