Cowboys stay in playoff race with Ezekiel Elliott set to return

OAKLAND, Calif. -- The Dallas Cowboys' goal during Ezekiel Elliott's six-game suspension was to be relevant when the running back returned.

With their dramatic 20-17 win over the Raiders on Sunday, the Cowboys are alive in the playoff chase. Elliott will be allowed back at The Star on Monday for the first time since he left the Cowboys after their Nov. 5 win against the Kansas City Chiefs.

The Cowboys lost their first three games without Elliott and failed to score 10 points in any of those losses, a first in franchise history. Elliott comes back to a Cowboys team that needs help to make the playoffs but has won three straight games.

Sunday's victory was by the narrowest of margins -- about a piece of paper and a few inches. With 4:49 to play, referee Gene Steratore measured Dak Prescott's quarterback sneak with a paper -- yes, a piece of paper -- from his pocket on fourth down from the Dallas 39. Having ended the Cowboys' season by overturning Dez Bryant's catch near the Green Bay Packers' goal line in the 2014 playoffs, Steratore's ruling this time kept the Cowboys' 2017 postseason drive alive.

"It's a game of inches," Bryant said. "I never seen that before, but just goes to show you it's a game of inches."

Earlier in the third quarter, Steratore did not overturn a Cowboys challenge of a Raiders catch and did overturn a Jason Witten first-down catch -- correctly -- that set up the Prescott keeper. He correctly ruled that Cole Beasley had touched Raiders cornerback Sean Smith while he was on the ground on an interception that originally was ruled returned for a touchdown.

Two plays after Steratore took out a piece of paper to measure for the first down, Prescott hit Bryant down the sideline for a 40-yard catch. The Cowboys weren't able to get into the end zone -- Alfred Morris was stopped short -- but set up Dan Bailey's 19-yard field goal with 1:44 to play.

Still, this game was far from over, in part because Cowboys cornerback Anthony Brown couldn't come down with what should have been an easy interception on third-and-10 from the Oakland 30. On the next play, Jourdan Lewis was called for a 55-yard pass interference penalty, and the Cowboys needed to sweat out the final seconds, with an ending as improbable as any they've encountered in recent years.

Raiders quarterback Derek Carr was ruled to have fumbled out of the end zone while scrambling from the Dallas 8-yard line with 31 seconds to play. Lunging for the pylon, Carr lost control of the ball as he was hit by Jeff Heath. The fumble through the end zone resulted in a touchback.

Instead of a go-ahead touchdown, the Cowboys got the ball with 31 seconds to play and took a knee. Of course, Steratore needed replay to affirm the decision. Unlike two Januarys ago at Lambeau Field, the Cowboys got the news they wanted.

They are alive. Barely.

"There's plenty to clean up in this game," Garrett said. "We'll go back, and we’ll look at it very objectively and very unemotionally on Tuesday with our team, but you want to instill that fight in your team, that battle, and our guys demonstrated that tonight. It was embodied by that play, symbolized by that play that Jeff Heath made at the end of the game. That's something we can build on."

Plus, Elliott is back.

"We need him back, and it's good to have him back," owner and general manager Jerry Jones said. "I think Zeke is going to energize our whole team."

Can the Cowboys actually pull this off and make the playoffs?