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Cowboys' goal: Make Ezekiel Elliott's return matter

OAKLAND, Calif. -- The Dallas Cowboys can almost see Ezekiel Elliott at the end of the tunnel.

The running back's six-game suspension ends after Sunday night's game against the Oakland Raiders, and the Cowboys' only goal is to get to 8-6 and make sure the final two games of the season have playoff ramifications.

The Cowboys have gone 2-3 in Elliott's absence, losing the first three games by 20 or more points to the Atlanta Falcons, Philadelphia Eagles and Los Angeles Chargers, and winning the last two against the Washington Redskins and New York Giants by a combined score of 68-24.

A loss would all but eliminate the Cowboys from playoff contention. According to ESPN's Football Power Index, a win would only increase their chances to 8 percent, but that's better than nothing with Elliott returning.

"I think you have to understand where you're at," Cowboys tight end Jason Witten said. "I'm certain that everybody on our team understands that. But at that point you can't scoreboard watch. You have to take care of your end. Really and truly all that matters is us putting ourselves in position and see what happens."

Still a threat: Running back Marshawn Lynch has just one 100-yard game this season, and that came against the 32nd-ranked defense of the New York Giants two weeks ago. Lynch has 619 yards on 147 carries in his return to the NFL for the Raiders.

The numbers are down from his days in Seattle when he posted four straight seasons with at least 1,200-yards rushing, but the Cowboys still see the same type of bruising running back.

Linebacker Sean Lee said it is almost impossible for one defender to tackle Lynch, and he remembers his first time trying to do so in 2012.

"It was everything you could do to try to bring him down," Lee said. "You have to keep your feet alive. You have to do everything. He'll run through arm tackles. Even when you're set, he can run through you. We know what type of player he is and we know we're going to have to be at our best to stuff him."

Quick change: John Pagano is in his fourth game as the Raiders' defensive coordinator after taking over for Ken Norton Jr., who was fired after the Oakland defense allowed 30 or more points four times in a six-game stretch.

In the three games, the Raiders have given up more than 20 points just once (a 26-15 loss to the Kansas City Chiefs last week). Witten said the Raiders' biggest change has been on third down, where they have allowed just 15 first downs on 41 third-down opportunities in the last three games.

Cowboys offensive coordinator Scott Linehan goes back a long way with Pagano. They were together in 1991 on the coaching staff at UNLV.

"They've changed a bit, focusing a little more on details of how they play their base defense," Linehan said. "If you really look at the statistical information, break it down from the last three games, it's paid off for them very well. ... He's a helluva coach and I think he's done a great job stepping in there and making some big improvements for them on defense."

The ref: Gene Steratore will be the referee for Sunday's game. That name might ring a bell: He was the referee who overturned Dez Bryant's fourth-quarter catch in the divisional round of the playoffs at Green Bay in 2014. This will be the first Cowboys game that Steratore has called since the replay review. Since 2010, the Cowboys are 1-4 in games Steratore calls, although the playoff game was with an all-star crew. In those games, the Cowboys have been penalized 26 times for 201 yards and their opponents have been flagged 30 times for 235 yards. Last week, Steratore worked the game between the Seattle Seahawks and Jacksonville Jaguars that got ugly in the final seconds. The crew called 24 penalties, with 13 accepted. Here is the breakdown of that game.