The Dallas Cowboys travel to California this weekend to face the Oakland Raiders in what amounts to a playoff game for both teams under the lights of Sunday Night Football.
The Cowboys and Raiders each experienced moments of fulfilling preseason promise, but they’ve also bottomed out at times during this campaign. When the final whistle blows on Sunday night, the winner will still have a fighting chance for a playoff berth.
“I think the two of us probably expected to have a few more wins at this point in the year, but we are where we are and we’re looking forward to playing,” Raiders coach Jack Del Rio said on Wednesday.
The Raiders will need a dramatic turnaround to bounce back from a 26-15 loss to the Kansas City Chiefs on Sunday.
The Chiefs dominated Oakland for the first three quarters, surging ahead 26-0, and withstood the Raiders’ fourth-quarter surge.
It made for a grumpy Del Rio in his follow-up press conference early this week.
“We are as frustrated and (angry) about what occurred (Sunday) as you can be, as anybody out there is,” Del Rio said. “Losing a game like that hurts and there are no words that I can say here today that are going to take away that pain or make those that care about the Raiders feel better, so I’m really not going to try.”
Meanwhile in Dallas, the Cowboys appear to be primed for a strong finish.
Dallas made big plays in the fourth quarter to win on the road against the New York Giants, 30-10, on Sunday.
Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott had his best passing game of the season as he completed 20 of 30 passes for 332 yards and three touchdowns with no interceptions.
Dallas also benefited from linebacker Sean Lee’s return from a hamstring injury that kept him out of the previous three games. Lee made 18 total tackles and his fourth-quarter interception set up running back Rod Smith’s 15-yard touchdown that iced the win.
All of those positive vibes could be compounded by the return of Ezekiel Elliott if the Cowboys can win in Oakland on Sunday night. The matchup marks the final contest of Elliott’s six-game suspension for violation of the NFL’s personal conduct policy.
The Dallas offense has clicked the last two weeks, albeit against NFC East opponents who sunk to the bottom of the standings. Cowboys coach Jason Garrett views the team’s offensive success the last two weeks as a mark of professionalism.
“I think the most important thing for everybody is to be your best regardless of what the circumstances are,” Garrett said. “Obviously Zeke is a really good football player and makes everybody around him better, but I would make the same argument about Dak. He’s a really good player.”
The Cowboys rushed for 122 yards in the win over the Giants, churning out 3.9 per carry. In Elliott’s absence, running back Alfred Morris leads Dallas with 369 rushing yards. Morris and Smith have been efficient in the last two wins, enough to get the Raiders’ attention.
“All the tape you look at, they run it well, they’ve got a big offensive line,” Del Rio said. “Obviously, Ezekiel is special, but all the backs or good. They’re all talented.”
Dallas’ defense has struggled to contain dynamic offenses this season. The Philadelphia Eagles and Los Angeles Rams in particular scored 37 and 35 points respectively as they each won on the Cowboys’ home field.
Oakland seems to have the personnel to be the next offense to light up the Dallas defense. But Raiders quarterback Derek Carr was held to 211 passing yards with a touchdown and two interceptions against the Chiefs. Running back Marshawn Lynch ran for just 61 yards, though he only carried it seven times. Wide receiver Amari Cooper re-injured his left ankle and didn’t catch a pass against Kansas City.
The Raiders gained 164 of their 268 total yards against the Chiefs in the fourth quarter. Del Rio said he wants to see that kind of urgency for more of the contest.
“I would love to see us just let it rip and go play,” Del Rio said. “We talked about hair on fire, we talked about that kind of effort and energy. Play fast. That’s what I believe in and I’d love to see it more often.”