FRISCO, Texas (AP) — The Dallas Cowboys may not have any realistic playoff hopes remaining by the time suspended running back Ezekiel Elliott returns for the final two games of the regular season.
If the defending NFC East champs are to stay in the postseason picture, they probably have to win at least three games without last year’s NFL rushing leader, who has four games left in a six-game ban for alleged domestic violence.
The Cowboys (5-5) have been outscored 47-0 in the second half of consecutive losses without Elliott, including 30-0 by Philadelphia on Sunday night as the Eagles all but wrapped up the division title with a 37-9 victory.
Dallas has its quick Thanksgiving turn against the Los Angeles Chargers (4-6), followed by another Thursday game against NFC East rival Washington.
“Coach (Jason) Garrett couldn’t put it in better words in giving our options all the way down from 11-5 to 5-11,” said Dak Prescott, last year’s NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year but now with three more interceptions than he had all of last season (four). “It’s up to us to figure out what we want to do.”
The Cowboys are hopeful four-time Pro Bowl left tackle Tyron Smith can return against the Chargers after missing two games with groin and back injuries. The optimistic view would be a return against the Redskins for 2016 All-Pro linebacker Sean Lee, who missed two earlier games and was out again against the Eagles with hamstring issues.
Prescott was sacked eight times against the Falcons before the Cowboys stabilized things somewhat with Byron Bell starting instead of Chaz Green in Smith’s spot. Still, the Cowboys have just one touchdown in 22 possessions worth counting in the two games without Elliott and Smith.
“Now the problem is between injuries and potentially not having players for other reasons, you’ve got to hang in there and get a win when maybe the personnel doesn’t look like you can do it, and you’ve got to stay eligible to get in that playoff,” owner Jerry Jones said. “We’re not doing that right now.”
The Cowboys, who are giving up 181 yards rushing per game without Lee, looked good for a half against the Eagles’ fourth-ranked offense. But they crumbled after halftime and couldn’t even stop the Eagles on three of four 2-point conversions when Philadelphia lost kicker Jake Elliott to a head injury.
With Lee already out, the Cowboys lost what amounts to his replacement in Anthony Hitchens to a groin injury. It’s unclear whether Hitchens will play Thursday.
As long as Hitchens and Lee are out, Dallas could be back where it was early in the season with forcing second-year linebacker Jaylon Smith to play too many snaps in what amounts to his rookie season because he spent a year recovering from a college knee injury.
“We’ve got a couple of guys out, but that’s not something we’re going to use as an excuse,” said linebacker Justin Durant, a veteran the Cowboys hope can help keep them afloat without Lee. “We’ve got to make plays and we didn’t do that.”
Alfred Morris, the clear choice as Elliott’s replacement after the Cowboys had 2015 rushing leader Darren McFadden inactive against the Eagles, had 91 yards rushing. It was his most since his last game with Washington two years ago.
But Morris’ 5.4-yard average didn’t translate to the passing game for Prescott, who had a career-high three interceptions and lost a fumble that was returned for a touchdown in his worst game as a pro.
Prescott, who set an NFL rookie record with a 104.9 passer rating last year, is completing 62 percent of his passes with no touchdowns, three interceptions and 12 sacks without Elliott.
“I’m not trying to carry the whole team,” Prescott said. “I’m not putting more on myself at all. I simply have to play better.”
Same for most of the Cowboys.