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Cowboys improving without Elliott, but playoff picture isn’t

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Schuyler Dixon, AP Pro Football Writer

FRISCO -- The Cowboys are a win away from breaking even in six games without suspended star running back Ezekiel Elliott.

While Dallas has improved in two straight wins following three consecutive losses without last year's NFL rushing leader as a rookie, the playoff outlook hasn't changed much.

The Cowboys (7-6) will need help even if they finish on a five-game winning streak.

The last game without Elliott, suspended six games over alleged domestic violence, is at Oakland (6-7) on Sunday night.

"We know where we are, we know what we've got to do," quarterback Dak Prescott said after a career-high 332 yards passing in a 30-10 win over the last-place New York Giants that was tied going into the fourth quarter.

"We're excited for it and we're going to get back to work. We're hungry and motivated to keep going."

The most interesting decision the Cowboys will have once Elliott returns is how to use his replacements -- Alfred Morris and Rod Smith.

Morris has been the starter -- and steady, averaging 74 yards per game and 3.6 per carry. But Smith was the first one to show the explosiveness the Cowboys have missed without Elliott, taking a short pass 81 yards for a touchdown against the Giants.

The older brother of second-year Dallas linebacker Jaylon Smith had his first two-touchdown game with a 15-yard run to finish the scoring. Rod Smith has four TDs, three more than Morris.

"Rod's someone we've tried to put in in the third series of each of the halves," coach Jason Garrett said. "And also he plays a lot in situational football. You're always trying to look for ways to get him some more opportunities. It was kind of a situational-type opportunity for him that he was able to make a play for us in."

Linebacker Sean Lee returned after missing three straight games with a hamstring injury, making it five overall that he has missed. He had one of two late interceptions to help the Cowboys win the turnover battle for the second straight week after going minus-7 in the three straight losses.

With Oakland coming after the Giants, the Cowboys get a second straight opponent having a disappointing season that started with Super Bowl aspirations. Even though they had the prospect of Elliott's suspension hanging over them until it finally hit eight games in, the Cowboys had the same hopes.

Dallas is the only one of the three with a realistic chance to do something about it, and even those hopes are up for debate.

"For us, it is playoff time because of the situation that we're in," said receiver Cole Beasley, who had a 54-yard catch to set up Jason Witten's 20-yard TD grab against the Giants. "Guys are going to keep pushing to get victories because that's the type of guys that we have in this room."

If the Cowboys beat the Raiders, they are guaranteed a chance to match Seattle's record and hold the tiebreaker on the Seahawks by beating them at home in Elliott's return. At the moment, though, Seattle is the first team outside the playoff picture in the NFC.

"Margin of error is still small, and there's still a lot of good teams in the NFC that are playing well," Lee said. "We know we have to really continue to win if we want to put ourselves in good position."