The Eagles, with a then healthy MVP candidate in Carson Wentz, were already running away with the division. How could the Cowboys keep pace with the rest of the highly competitive NFC without a player who had already racked up nearly 1,000 yards from scrimmage and nine total touchdowns in the first eight games of the season?
And then the Cowboys began their Zeke-less stretch by dropping three straight games by an average of 23.3 points. At that point, with Dak Prescott unable to carry the offense and with other important players injured, they were 5-6 and surely dead.
Fast-forward a few weeks, though, and the Cowboys are suddenly 8-6 after a last-second, Raiders. They've won three straight games. None of those wins were overly impressive, but the Cowboys did it: They managed to survive without their best offensive player and as a result, they'll enter their Week 16 contest against the Seahawks with a shot at the playoffs.over the
And oh yeah, Zeke is back. And ripped, by the way. You know how the offseason is filled with cliches like [insert player's name] is in the best shape of his career after he spent the offseason not eating gluten, dairy, and red meat? Well, Zeke actually does look like he's in the best shape of his career after spending the past month and a half away from the team.
The Cowboys still can't feel confident in their chances to advance past the regular season. Football Outsiders give them a 10.9 percent chance of making the playoffs. as our Ryan Wilson explained:
Wild-card possibility No. 2: Cowboys win out, the Saints lose out and the Lions lose at least once.
Wild-card possibility No. 3: Cowboys win out, the Panthers and Saints both lose out.
First things first: The Cowboys need to beat the Seahawks. The good news is that this isn't a mission impossible. The Seahawks, who find themselves in an identical must-win situation, are suddenly very beatable. Shorthanded, they've dropped two straight games to the Jaguars and Rams. Without Cliff Avril, Kam Chancellor, Richard Sherman, and a completely healthy Bobby Wagner, the Seahawks' defense is in the process of being torn apart to pieces. In their past two losses, they've allowed an average of 200 rushing yards per game.
I repeat: The Seahawks have been gouged for 200 rushing yards per game in the past two weeks.
Before Elliott's suspension went into effect, he was finally beginning to peak. In his first four games, he averaged 69 rushing yards per game and 3.64 yards per carry. In his last four games, he averaged roughly 126 rushing yards per game and 4.4 yards per carry.
Zeke can expose the Seahawks, just like Todd Gurley did in Week 15 when he totaled 180 yards and four touchdowns on offense. Gurley's huge day was a combination of the Rams' offensive line manhandling the Seahawks:
And Gurley being one of the game's best backs:
Expect Elliott to do something similar on Sunday. The Cowboys' offensive line ranks fourth in run blocking -- one spot behind the Rams -- according to Football Outsiders. For all of the crap they've gotten for not being the game's best unit as we all expected entering the year, they've been dominant in the run game.
Meanwhile, Prescott should immediately benefit from Zeke's presence.
And again, the Seahawks are shorthanded (). Middle linebacker Bobby Wagner is maybe the best linebacker in football because he's able to cover sideline to sideline. With a bad hamstring, he's been unable to do that. For all of the credit Richard Sherman gets for being a top cover corner, he's also a valuable contributor in stopping the ground game. According to Pro Football Focus, he owns the fifth-highest run-stop percentage among all cornerbacks this season. Strong safety Kam Chancellor ranked first in run-stop percentage among all safeties, per PFF. Neither Sherman nor Chancellor will be available to play.
This could be a bloodbath. Expect Elliott and the Cowboys to end the Seahawks season while they keep their own season alive.
Here are seven more stats to know for Week 16.
1. Brady is inching closer to Manning's record
The Patriots beat the Steelers thanks to and Big Ben's decision to throw a slant into traffic on the Steelers' final offensive play. Don't overlook what happened before that, though, when Tom Brady engineered an eight-point drive to take a three-point lead in the final minute.
As a result, Brady is inching closer to breaking Peyton Manning's record for the most game-winning drives.
Brady probably won't get many more chances this season to orchestrate a game-winning drive considering the Patriots finish out the year against the Bills and Jets, two bad football teams that they should annihilate. If the Patriots win their final two games, they'll capture home-field advantage in the AFC.
2. Blake Bortles is December's best QB
Move over Brady, because there's a better quarterback at this exact moment: Blake Bortles. Seriously, the Jaguars' typically awful quarterback has been the best in football during December.
Blake Bortles This Month— Adam Schefter (@AdamSchefter) December 18, 2017
W-L 3-0 T-1st
Yds per att 9.9 1st
TD-Int 7-0 1st
Total QBR 85 1st
He's been so good that he's turned Keelan Cole into a legit receiver:
More importantly, the Jaguars haveand they actually have a chance to snag a first-round bye. The Jaguars are trailing the Steelers for the No. 2 seed in the AFC by just one game, and they already beat them earlier this season. So, if the Jaguars win out and the Steelers lose one game, the Jaguars will get a first-round bye. Imagine that!
Meet the NFL's second hottest quarterback:
Who ya got?
3. Christian McCaffrey is coming alive
Panthers running back Christian McCaffrey won't win Offensive Rookie of the Year, but he's become the Panthers' best offensive weapon -- besides Cam Newton, of course. A week ago, McCaffrey did something that no other player has done since 2000.
Christian McCaffrey had 5 carries, 20 rushing yards, 4 receptions, and 40 receiving yards (including a 7-yard rec TD) on the @Panthers opening drive.— NFL Research (@NFLResearch) December 17, 2017
He's the first player with 9+ touches, 60+ scrimmage yards, and a TD on a team's opening drive since at least 2000.
That drive ended with thiswhen Newton did this before the snap:
More importantly, after a slow start to the season as a runner, McCaffrey's coming alive. In his past six games, he's averaging 5.0 yards per carry. He also has five total touchdowns in that span.
McCaffrey will be needed down the stretch. The Panthers are 10-4, but they're not a lock to make the playoffs. They can clinch a playoff berth with a win or tie against the Buccaneers or if the Seahawks and Cowboys tie. They probably shouldn't count on that happening.
Beating the 4-10 Buccaneers on the other hand? That should come easy.
4. Gronk to the rescue
If you watched Brady's game-winning drive, you know he targeted the heck out of Rob Gronkowski, who caught three of four targets for a very nice 69 yards. And that's not even including his two-point conversion, which ended up being key considering the Steelers couldn't kick a field goal to win the game.
In Gronk's past two games, he has 315 receiving yards. That's a record for a tight end.
5. Cam Newton's incredible rushing season
Saints rookie running back Alvin Kamara will probably win Offensive Rookie of the Year considering he's rushed for 652 yards and seven touchdowns, and piled up 684 yards and five touchdowns as a receiver. But this section isn't about Kamara, even though I do endorse his OROY candidacy. This section is about Cam Newton.
As a Reddit user pointed out, Newton enters Week 16 with nine fewer rushing yards than Kamara, which is kinda incredible and puts into context just how damn good Newton is as a runner. Newton has 643 rushing yards this season, which ranks 25th among all players. He's ahead of DeMarco Murray and Tevin Coleman. Since entering the NFL in 2011, Newton's rushed for 4,209 yards -- 999 more yards than the next closest quarterback (Russell Wilson).
Newton is going up against a Buccaneers defense that made Ryan look like a mobile quarterback with 29 yards on three scrambles.
Enter: Cam Newton.
6. Marcus Mariota in no-huddle
"I'd rather have Marcus calling the shots," Matthews said, per ESPN.com. "There's proof in the success when that happens. I'd like to do no-huddle more. I know we'd all like to do it more. We definitely talk about it a lot. Sometimes we go into it a lot. Sometimes we don't. This game we stayed in it, and I feel like we were pretty good when were in it."
Here's the thing: Matthews doesn't appear to be correct, at least based on the statistics.
With that being said, we're working with a tiny sample size.
Those Titans no-huddle stats are a small sample. Their 5.8% hurry-up rate ranks 20th.— Pat Thorman (@Pat_Thorman) December 19, 2017
After an 8-4 start, the Titans have lost two straight games and are on the verge of missing out on a playoff spot. Given just how badly this current regime has stalled Mariota's development, missing out on the playoffs and getting a new coach might not be the worst thing for their long-term future.
They'll play the Rams on Sunday, so there's a very real chance they'll drop to 8-7.
7. Julio Jones vs. Marshon Lattimore
One of the week's best games, Falcons-Saints, will also feature one of the best individual matchups: Falcons receiver Julio Jones against Saints cornerback Marshon Lattimore.
We all know how good Jones is, even if he's experienced a bit of a down season by his unfair standards (1,215 yards and three touchdowns). But we shouldn't overlook how much Lattimore has impacted a typically awful Saints defense, which is suddenly pulling its weight as the Saints continue their playoff push. Lattimore has snagged four picks this season and more impressively, he's allowed a 37.5 passer rating in coverage, according to Pro Football Focus. He's yet to allow a touchdown.
The last time these two teams met, just a couple weeks ago, Jones caught three of his five targets for 73 yards against Lattimore. I can't wait for Part II in a game with playoff implications. If the Falcons win, they won't just secure a playoff spot, they'll also surpass the Saints in the NFC South.