The Cowboys have won three straight while the Falcons have lost four of five
For different reasons, the Cowboys and Falcons are facing crises. For Dallas, it comes in the form of the most recent development in the Ezekiel Elliott case; the second-year running back's . Prior to Thursday's news, however, the Cowboys (5-3) had overcome some early-season struggles and were coming off three straight wins, including a convincing effort against the Chiefs last Sunday.
Atlanta (4-4), meanwhile, has lost four of its last five and looks nothing like the team that scored at will a season ago and was a fourth-quarter collapse away from its first Lombardi Trophy.
At the halfway point in the season, both teams remain firmly in the playoff mix though they appear to be going in opposite directions. The Cowboys are the league's eighth-best team, according to Football Outsiders' efficiency metric, while the Falcons are 19th. In terms of the playoffs, Dallas currently has a 43.1 percent chance of playing January football, and the Falcons have just a 15.1 percent chance.
So how will the Cowboys' running game work without its best runner? It will be business as usual.
"There's no change to what we would do," offensive coordinator Scott Linehan said Thursday, via ESPN.com, before the Elliott decision was announced. "We don't have any contingency that if this were to happen or wasn't going to happen that we would change anything, really, of what we're focusing on. We're going to put 11 out there and go play ball."
"They can all do our offense really well, run our schemes really well," running backs coach Gary Brown said. "Darren is a speed guy, so he is always a threat to go the home run. Rod's a big, fast, strong guy and I would say Alfred is probably the master of the outside zone. So they call bring a different quality, a positive quality that we're going to be able to take advantage of. ...
"When you have three backs that are competent, you hope one gets hot and maybe you ride him a little bit longer. But all three guys bring different qualities that you really, really like and we've got to get all three involved."
And while Elliott is sidelined (for now), second-year quarterback Dak Prescott -- arguably the team's most important player -- remains. He completed 21 of 33 passes for 249 yards and 3 touchdowns (2 passing, 1 rushing) in last weeks' win over the Chiefs. He also ranks seventh in value per play among all quarterbacks a season after finishing third. Prescott has completed 63 percent of his passes in 2017 for 1,818 yards, with 16 touchdowns and four interceptions.
"I think he's improved across the board," coach Jason Garrett said. "So much of it has to do with the experience he's had. ... He plays in these games and does a lot of good things and builds on those things. He does some things that aren't exactly what we want or what he wants and he learns from them."
A season ago, the Falcons had the NFL's top-rated offense (first overall, first in passing, sixth in rushing). But everything changed when offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan left for the 49ers this offseason. His replacement, Steve Sarkisian hasn't had nearly the success and the offense has slipped to No. 8. The biggest surprise is the passing game, which now ranks 13th (the running game is fifth).
In the team's latest loss, last Sunday against the Panthers, the Falcons struggled to get first downs; they were just 4 of 15 on third and fourth downs, including a two costly fourth-quarter failures that could have swung the game for Atlanta.
"We've got lots of work to do," coach Dan Quinn said. "We're pleased that we improved in the red zone offensively. But third down, we improved defensively, but offensively we still have much work to do."
How does Atlanta get back on track?
"It comes down to us, the way we execute, the way we attack," Quinn continued. "That's what I told the team today. Where we go from here will depend entirely on (the team's attitude) and how we go and attack."
The Falcons are 3-point favorites at home but only three of eight CBSSports.com experts expect Atlanta to win. That includes Pete Prisco:
The Falcons might be playing for their playoff lives here. They are 4-4 and home for the first time in a month after three on the road. The Cowboys have righted things with three straight victories, but they might be without Ezekiel Elliott, pending his appeal of his suspension. I think the desperate Falcons find a way to win it. -- Prisco, who has the Falcons winning, 27-23
You can view all the expert picks here.