The Dallas Cowboys' 20-17 victory against the Oakland Raiders on Sunday extended their winning streak to three games and has them with a 3-3 record during the six-game suspension of running back Ezekiel Elliott.
The goal was to stay in contention until Elliott returned.
The Cowboys (8-6) completed the task with a gutsy effort in the wild finish against the Raiders. Credit referee Gene Steratore for help with his folded piece of paper on a fourth-down ruling, but also credit safety Jeff Heath for forcing the final game-saving touchback.
The goal was to bridge the gap to Elliott, who returned Monday after sitting out the past six games for violating the NFL's personal conduct policy, stemming from a July 2016 incident in which an ex-girlfriend accused him of domestic violence.
Elliott met with owner Jerry Jones early Monday after spending much of his suspension training in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico.
"We're excited about Zeke," Jones said.
"I'm excited to have him back at The Star. It's been a rough year for Zeke, and he'll be the first to say that he knows his fans have had an up-and-down (time) with him here, and now we're back together again. Maybe we'll get a chance to really do something special, maybe we'll get in the playoffs."
The Cowboys are excited to have him back.
"We get an extreme boost because that's our guy. That's our horse," wide receiver Dez Bryant said. "He gives us that extra boost of joy because of his personality and who he is. He gets guys going with his attitude and his passion and love for the game. Just seeing him back will make us play that much better."
Before his suspension, Elliott ranked among the league rushing leaders with 783 rushing yards and 210 receiving yards. He found his stride in the four games prior to his suspension, too, averaging 126.5 yards a game while scoring six touchdowns (five rushing, one receiving).
The Cowboys struggled to adjust with life without him at the start of the suspension. They went 0-3 and had single-digit points in that dreadful stretch, the worst scoring production in franchise history.
Now Dallas is ready for Elliott to return.
"He's a great football player," coach Jason Garrett said.
"Obviously had a big impact on our football team in the times he's been with us. But a real credit to Alfred Morris and to Rod Smith for playing as well as they have in his absence. Any time you have a player of Zeke's caliber back in the lineup, he's going to help. He's going to take some pressure off everybody else. He's just that kind of player and he's been that kind of player for us.
"There'll still be a role for Alfred. There'll still be a role for Rod. But we'll certainly embrace Zeke being back."
Morris rushed for 430 yards on 99 carries and a touchdown with Elliott sidelined, while Smith had 153 yards on 33 carries. Smith has scored a rushing touchdown in four straight games.
Elliott tried to avoid the suspension as long as possible. He had a prolonged legal battle with the NFL over the merits of the suspension.
Elliott has maintained his innocence all along and was never arrested or charged with a crime by the Columbus (Ohio) city prosecutor's office. But the NFL conducted its own investigation and commissioner Roger Goodell made the final determination that there was substantial evidence to suspend Elliott.
"We're glad to have him back," Jones said. "Now we lost games when we had Zeke, so that doesn't just mean that we don't have to get out here and compete these last two ballgames. On the other hand, he'll give us a dimension that the defenses will have to respect and honor."