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Cowboys edge Raiders, keep NFC playoff hopes alive

The Dallas Cowboys (8-6) kept their paper-thin playoff hopes alive on Sunday night, riding a controversial MacGyverish first-down decision to a 20-17 victory over the Oakland Raiders (6-8) on Sunday Night Football in Week 15. Here's what we learned:

  1. Life's this game of inches, so is football, Al Pacino once said in a fictionalized halftime speech. Try millimeters, Tony D'Amato. Two crazy close calls turned the tide of this wild prime-time thriller and effectively ended the Oakland Raiders' season.

First, the notecard. Tied at 17 with five minutes left, Dallas went for it on fourth-and-one from its own 39, only for Dak Prescott to apparently be stopped short of the line to gain. Upon further review, the ball was re-measured, but it was still to close to call by the naked eye. Referee Gene Steratore proceeded to break the tie by unleashing a folded index card to "reaffirm" that the ball reached the first-down marker. It did. Apparently. Three plays later, Dallas was in Oakland's red zone, and the Cowboys took the lead with a 19-yard Dan Bailey field goal.

On Oakland's ensuing drive, the Raiders found themselves inside Dallas' 10 with just 30 seconds to go. Gunning for six, on third down, Derek Carr rolled out to his right and dove for the pylon. Still in bounds, Carr was forced by Jeff Heath toward the sideline as he stretched out, but the ball dislodged, sailing inside the pylon and through the end zone. The ruling was the dreaded fumble-through-the-end-zone touchback. Ball and game, Cowboys.

The ending to Sunday Night Football called into question the arbitrary and illogical nature of parts of the NFL rule book. On a day when the inconsistent Catch Rule reared its ugly head once again, Sunday's finale proved that, along with questionable calls, the rule book should go under review this offseason.

  1. With the close win, Dallas remains very much alive in the NFC wild-card race. At 8-6, the Cowboys are one of four teams in the conference with eight wins. If the Atlanta Falcons (8-5) somehow lose Monday night to Tampa Bay, there will be a four-way tie at 8-6 for the sixth seed between Atlanta, Dallas, Detroit and Seattle. Of those four clubs, the Cowboys and Seahawks are the only two to play each other in a Week 16 do-or-die game at AT&T Stadium.

Adding to the intrigue of next week's bout will be the return of Ezekiel Elliott from his six-game suspension/vacation to a Cowboys offense that has kept things afloat in Big D. Alfred Morris (61 yards) and Rod Smith (34 total yards) looked to have tired out Sunday after shouldering the load in Zeke's stead for a third of the season, so Elliott's return will be a welcome one. Whether his essential left tackle Tyron Smith will be available, after exiting the win with an ankle injury, will be something to monitor this week.

  1. When Derek Carr tossed his first of two touchdown passes Sunday night and became only the fifth player ever to throw 100 TDs in his first four seasons, it was less a celebration of Carr's ascendancy and more a reminder of what could have been this season for the Raiders' franchise quarterback. Carr made few errors in Oakland's season-sealing loss, save for the unfortunate goal-line fumble, throwing two scores to Michael Crabtree and taking zero sacks, but he couldn't capitalize on any risks either. Carr averaged 4.5 yards per attempt against the Cowboys and saw most of his deep attempts to Crabtree and Co. snuffed out by Dallas' rookie cornerbacks. Oakland's largest gain on the night came when Carr heaved a fourth-and-10 prayer to Crabtree on the final march, who drew a 55-yard pass-interference penalty. Sure, Carr hasn't had all of his weapons this season -- Amari Cooper was inactive yet again on Sunday -- but the QB's regression to the mean following his MVP campaign and devastating leg injury in 2016 can't be blamed on his surrounding talent alone.
  1. Oakland's cooked. Mathematically, the 6-8 Raiders are still alive in the AFC and the AFC West. But for Oakland to even get to a tiebreaker with the Chiefs and Chargers, or any of the wild-card hopefuls, the Raiders would need to march next week into Philadelphia, the NFC's top team, which is still looking to clinch home-field advantage, and then follow that up with a Week 17 win over the Chargers in Black Hole-friendly Carson. And that's all before Kansas City and Los Angeles lose out, and Oakland gets help from teams around the league.
  1. It's been a quiet year for Khalil Mack, considering how lauded and dominant the start of his career was, but the Raiders' defensive captain on Sunday reminded the nation why he has earned such praise. Mack tallied two sacks on Sunday -- his fifth consecutive game with a QB takedown, the longest streak in the league -- and raised his sack total to 10.5. More impressive, this showing came against Smith and La'el Collins, arguably the NFL's top tackle duo. Bruce Irvin had a night too, beating the All-Pro Smith to force a Prescott pick in the second half.
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