5 things to watch when the Raiders play the Cowboys on Sunday

The loser of Sunday night’s game between the Raiders and Cowboys can probably start planning their offseason vacation trips for January.

The Raiders’ playoff hopes took a massive hit after they lost 26-15 Sunday at Kansas City. They are one game behind the Chiefs (7-6) and Chargers (7-6) for the AFC West lead. The Raiders (6-7) are also one game behind the Bills (7-6) and Ravens (7-6) for the final wild-card spot.

The Cowboys climbed back into the playoff race with back-to-back victories against the Redskins and Giants. But even with a 7-6 record, the Cowboys are 10th in the NFC and will need the Seahawks, Lions and Packers to stumble in the final three weeks to have a shot at a wild-card berth.

The Raiders won’t have to worry about running back Ezekiel Elliott, who still has one game left on his six-game suspension.

Here are five things you need to know about the Cowboys:

1. The Cowboys’ coaching staff took plenty of heat for not adjusting for life after Elliott. Dak Prescott also deserved the bulk of the blame for not stepping up when the team needed him most. Prescott had the worst three games of his young career during the first half of Elliott’s suspension with embarrassing losses to the Falcons, Eagles and Chargers. The second-year quarterback broke out of his funk last week by carving up the Giants’ defense for 332 passing yards and three touchdowns. Prescott attacked the middle of the field and gave the ball to his best playmaker, Dez Bryant, who had 73 receiving yards and a touchdown. Prescott and Bryant could have more success against the Raiders’ poor secondary. Prescott has thrown for 2,752 passing yards this season with 21 touchdowns and nine interceptions.

2. It took them three games, but coach Jason Garrett and offensive coordinator Scott Linehan found a running game with Alfred Morris and Rod Smith. Morris had solid outings as the three-down back against the Redskins and Giants. Morris rushed for 127 yards and a touchdown on 27 carries versus Washington. Smith delivered in the passing game last week with 113 receiving yards, including an 81-yard touchdown. The Raiders have struggled keeping up with pass-catching running backs.

3. The return of left tackle Tyron Smith from injury is a major reason Prescott was able to bounce back. The Cowboys’ offensive line isn’t as good as last season, but they’re still one of the best in the league with right guard Zack Martin and Smith being two of the best at their positions. The Raiders’ front seven has played at a high level since defensive coordinator John Pagano took over as the play-caller. Khalil Mack against Smith will be a must-see matchup. The Raiders’ Bruce Irvin and Denico Autry have created havoc in the trenches in recent weeks.

4. The absence of linebacker Sean Lee affected the entire Cowboys defense. After missing three games, Lee returned in Week 14 in a limited role. He could see his snap count increase, which would allow linebackers Jaylon Smith and Anthony Hitchens to roam the field. The linebackers could have their hands full against Marshawn Lynch, who is playing his best football of the season.

5. If the linebackers are doing their job, that usually translates into a big outing for pass rusher DeMarcus Lawrence. The Boise State product was a front-runner for the Defensive Player of the Year award, but has cooled off a bit during the second half of the season. Lawrence has emerged as one of the best pass rushers in the league this season. He’s second in the NFL in sacks with 13.5.

Contact Gilbert Manzano at gmanzano@reviewjournal.com. Follow @GManzano24 on Twitter.

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