ezekiel elliott Dallas Cowboys
Ezekiel Elliott celebrates with fans following the Dallas Cowboys' 28-17 win over the Kansas City Chiefs at AT&T Stadium on Nov. 5, 2017 in Arlington, Texas. Ron Jenkins/Getty Images)

When the Dallas Cowboys fell below .500 in Week 12, a return to the playoffs seemed like a long shot. Last year’s NFC East champions lost the first three games of Ezekiel Elliott’s suspension, quickly falling further out of both the division and wild-card races.

A lot has changed since “America’s Team” was embarrassed in front of the entire country on Thanksgiving. Three straight wins have greatly increased the Cowboys’ playoff chances, and the return of their star running back gives the team a real chance to make a postseason run.

Dallas improved to 8-6 with a win over the Oakland Raiders on “Sunday Night Football” in Week 15. The Cowboys are the NFC’s No.9 seed, sharing the same record as the Detroit Lions and Seattle Seahawks. The 8-5 Atlanta Falcons will maintain the No.6 seed in Week 16 regardless of what happens in their “Monday Night Football” game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

The biggest issue for the Cowboys is that they don’t control their own destiny. Even if Dallas closes out the regular season with two more victories, they’ll need help from one of the NFC South playoff contenders.

The Cowboys would get in the playoffs if they finished with the same record as either the New Orleans Saints or Carolina Panthers. That would require one of those two teams to lose both of their final contests.

The Falcons own the head-to-head tiebreaker over the Cowboys because they beat Dallas in the first week of Elliott’s suspension. That means Atlanta needs to lose two of their next three games in order to finish behind Dallas.

There’s certainly a chance that the Falcons could lose in both Week 16 and Week 17. Atlanta will be an underdog when they visit New Orleans on Christmas Eve. If they can’t beat the Saints, the Falcons could potentially be underdogs again when they host the Panthers in the regular-season finale. Atlanta lost in Carolina earlier this season.

Hosting Seattle and playing on the road against the Philadelphia Eagles might not seem like an ideal way to end the season, but it could be exactly what Dallas needs. Defeating the Seahawks, who haven’t looked like a legitimate Super Bowl contender with two straight losses, would eliminate Seattle from contention. The Eagles will likely clinch the NFC’s No.1 seed in Week 16, giving them nothing to play for in Week 17.

Victories over Seattle and Philadelphia would also give Dallas the tiebreaker over Detroit.

When the roles were reversed in Week 17 last year, Philadelphia defeated Dallas, who had already clinched home-field advantage in the NFC playoffs. Elliott didn’t play in that game, and the Cowboys are 18-5 over the last two seasons when the running back starts.

Dak Prescott had 16 touchdown passes and four interceptions before Elliott was suspended. The quarterback threw for five scores and seven picks with Elliott away from the team.

Dallas is an early 2.5-point favorite over Seattle in Week 16, per OddsShark.