Dallas Cowboys running back Ezekiel Ellott rushes against the Kansas City Chiefs in November. Photo by Ian Halperin/UPI | License Photo
The Seattle Seahawks and Dallas Cowboys occupy the same basic space in the hunt for an NFC playoff berth even though they appear to be going in opposite directions.
Two weeks ago, Seattle thumped Philadelphia 24-10 to improve to 8-4. At that point, the Seahawks were on the Rams' heels for the NFC West crown and looked to have a decent chance of claiming a wild card playoff spot even if the division title didn't pan out.
Then came a tough loss at Jacksonville, 30-24, and a humbling one at home against the Rams, 42-7.
"It was just a couple of weeks ago that we played one of the best games we've ever played," Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said. "We've got to turn it and make sure that we get right and get back, ready to go to Dallas."
The Cowboys, meanwhile, have hit their stride, though possibly too late. Dallas has won three straight, giving the team the chance to continue hoping for a playoff berth as they host a Christmas Eve afternoon game against Seattle.
Just in time for Christmas, the Cowboys get running back Ezekiel Elliott back from his six-game suspension for violating the NFL's personal conduct policy. That meant Dallas coach Jason Garrett spent the bulk of his time at the podium during mid-week press conferences answering questions about Elliott's return.
"He looks like he's in good shape," Garrett said. "He seems mentally into it, engaged and just fell right back in with his teammates in meetings and walk through."
Garrett appeared very uncomfortable in tiptoeing around questions about how Elliott will be used without downplaying the effort of backup running backs Alfred Morris and Rod Smith.
"We'll work through this week and see what (Elliott is) able to do in this game plan," Garrett said. "We'll certainly keep Alfred ready. We'll certainly keep Rod ready."
Though Garrett would not say as much, having Elliott available gets Dallas closer to full strength. Whether or not left tackle Tyron Smith will be healthy enough to play on Sunday is a question mark. Smith, who hyperextended a knee in the Cowboys' win over Oakland, was not expected to practice on Wednesday.
There is no doubt, though, that Dallas has benefitted from having linebacker Sean Lee on the field again. Lee, the team's leading tackler, missed five games with a hamstring injury and the Cowboys went 1-4 in those contests. Since Lee returned to action, Dallas has won two straight road games.
For the Cowboys to make the playoffs and take full advantage of being back to full strength, they likely need to win out and get some help elsewhere. Dallas (8-6), Seattle (8-6) and Detroit (8-6) trail Atlanta (9-5) in pursuit of the NFC's final wild card spot entering Week 16.
However, asked whether or not having Elliott back gives his team an energy boost in the playoff hunt, Garrett maintained his steady, almost robotic insistence on professional adherence to the weekly process.
"The biggest thing for us is just get back to work," Garrett said on Monday. "Come back in (Tuesday) with the players and go over the game in a very unemotional way and build on the good and clean up the bad."
Garrett might not say it, but Cowboys fans have to be excited about the prospect of turning Elliott loose on a Seahawks team that gave up 144 rushing yards to the Jaguars and 244 to the Rams.
While Garrett was conservative in his comments on Elliott's return, Carroll has an idea what's coming.
"(Elliott is) going to be all fired up and all that," Carroll said. "I'm sure that they're going to feed him. He's fresh."
But it's not just the Cowboys' running game that was worrying Carroll this week.
"They're a terrific team," the Seahawks coach said. "They have big dudes that can make the plays -- the receiver, the tight end, the running back, the quarterback. They're loaded."
And as much as Garrett stayed on message, insisting the team was sticking to its weekly process, Carroll divulged that his team sees how big the next one will be in both teams' playoff chances.
"It's just been a real sequence of great challenges one week after another and here we go again," Carroll said. "This is not easy at all. Two 8-6 teams battling for it and there's a lot at stake. Everything is on the line for both of us."