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EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. – Ezekiel Elliott’s importance to the Dallas Cowboys was on full display Sunday, and he did not even play.

For the first time in his career, Elliott was healthy and did not dress for a game. The Cowboys did not even want him going through pregame warmups. At least in 2016, when the Cowboys had home-field advantage wrapped up, Elliott was able to wear his uniform and sit on the bench for four quarters.

On Sunday, Elliott was in a blue sweat suit.

And the Cowboys won anyway, beating the New York Giants 36-35.

Now a rested Elliott will lead Dallas against Seattle in the wild-card round on Saturday. He ran for 127 yards on 16 carries during the Cowboys’ Week 3 loss in Seattle, but he also lost a fumble. The Cowboys are looking to advance to the divisional round of the playoffs for the first time since 2014, and they’ll be facing a Seahawks team that was middle of the pack in rushing defense.

Elliott still kept busy Sunday. He ran the pregame huddle, bouncing around his teammates, pumping them up. On the sidelines, he was talking to his fellow running backs. When Rod Smith bulled his way in for a 1-yard touchdown, Elliott met him with a leaping high-five.

Ezekiel Elliott won’t be wearing a sweatsuit when the Cowboys host the Seahawks. Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire
“Each and every drive I was coming to the sideline and he had something to say. Or as I’m going back out there, [he was] encouraging us,” Dak Prescott said. “But he was definitely locked in. That’s what you need from your running back and a leader of the team.”

By sitting Elliott, the Cowboys showed just how important he will be to their playoff success.

“We all know the leading rusher in the NFL is an important player,” offensive coordinator Scott Linehan said. “But he’s also had more touches. Maybe the guy we played [Saquon Barkley] might’ve been right there with him, but [Elliott] had more touches than anybody I’ve ever been around as far as 15 games. This was real similar to his rookie year when he didn’t play in the last regular-season game when he led the league in rushing that year either.

“I think it will help him, think it’ll be a little jolt for him feeling refreshed going into next week’s game.”

In a league dominated by passing, the Cowboys will look to win the franchise’s sixth Super Bowl in an old-school manner: the running game and defense.

Elliott won his second rushing title in three seasons on Sunday without taking a snap. He finished the year with 304 carries for 1,434 yards. As a rookie in 2016, he had 1,631 yards in 15 games to win the rushing title.

The last team to win a Super Bowl with the rushing champion was the 1998 Denver Broncos when Terrell Davis ran for 2,008 yards. In the Cowboys’ three Super Bowl wins in the 1990s, Emmitt Smith was the rushing champ in 1992, 1993 and 1995.

“We ask him to do a lot of things,” wide receiver Cole Beasley said. “We play through him. He’s our playmaker, so they obviously want to get him as many touches as possible.”

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In the 15 games Elliott played, he accounted for 39.4 percent of the Cowboys’ scrimmage yards, 2,001 of the 5,082 yards, the highest percentage of any player in the league. Through the first 15 weeks, David Johnson of the Cardinals was second at 35.9 percent.

Since selecting Elliott fourth overall in 2016, the Cowboys have not hid their desire to get him the ball. A lot.

In three seasons, he has 5,247 yards from scrimmage. He is only the fourth player in league history to eclipse more than 1,900 scrimmage yards in two of his first three seasons. Eric Dickerson (1983-84), Edgerrin James (1999-2000) and LaDainian Tomlinson (2002-03) are the only others to have done it twice.

Elliott missed six games in 2017 because of a suspension but would have had more than 2,000 scrimmage yards based on his totals through 10 games.

“They drafted me the No. 4 overall pick and I’d like to think that I’ve fulfilled all the expectations that they’ve expected of me,” Elliott said.

This season, Elliott became a bigger part of the passing game partly because he had to with the release of Dez Bryant and the retirement of Jason Witten. His 77 catches are the most by a running back in a season in franchise history. He entered the year with 58 catches in 25 games. He matched his career total with three touchdown receptions this season.

“I’ll never say somebody can replace Witt or what Witt meant, obviously. But just having [Elliott] in your back pocket, knowing you’re in trouble, knowing a blitz is coming or something like that, you got a back you can get it out to or no telling when he gets it, what he might to do with it,” Prescott said. “That serves this offense so much and keeps us ahead of the chains.”

Twice this season Elliott had games with more than 200 scrimmage yards. His four games of at least 200 scrimmage yards are tied for the most in team history with Smith and DeMarco Murray.

“I don’t know anybody who’s better with the ball in his hands,” Beasley said of Elliott.

The Cowboys took the ball out of Elliott’s hands against the Giants.

That won’t be the case in the playoffs.

The Cowboys’ road to Super Bowl LIII will have to be paved by Elliott.

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LOS ANGELES — It was exactly one year ago today, if you can believe it, that the Los Angeles Rams rid themselves of Jeff Fisher.

What an uncertain time that was.

The Rams were coming off a 42-14 blowout loss at home to the Atlanta Falcons, their fourth of seven consecutive defeats to end their first season back in the nation’s second-largest media market. The Rams knew then that they needed to make a change at head coach. So they fired Fisher 13 games into his fifth season — but they didn’t really know what was next.

Kevin Demoff, the Rams’ chief operating officer, addressed the media for 45 minutes that Monday and called the 2016 season “an organizational failure.”

“This team is not where it needs to be,” Demoff said at the time. “And we need to own up to that from a coaching perspective, from a personnel perspective, from an administration perspective. I think all of us need to get better.”
Sean McVay has the Rams at 9-4 in his first season as head coach, the franchise’s first winning season in 14 years. Harry How/Getty Images
Nobody could’ve predicted the Rams would get this much better. Not this quickly. They’re 9-4 now, sitting as the No. 3 seed in the NFC after having already guaranteed themselves their first winning season in 14 years.

At this time last year, the Rams were lost. They didn’t know what they had in Jared Goff, their potential franchise quarterback and former No. 1 overall pick. They didn’t know if Todd Gurley could re-establish himself among the league’s most dynamic running backs. They didn’t know if the best years of defensive tackle Aaron Donald’s career would be wasted on deficient teams. And they didn’t know how they fit in this robust market of L.A.

Now the Rams have a head coach and a quarterback to grow with, not to mention plenty of young talent around them. They’re starting to build real, sustainable excitement in Southern California, less than three years before the opening of their opulent new stadium. And their concerns of a year ago have basically subsided. The first step was letting go of Fisher, who never got the offense right and, in hindsight, might have fostered an atmosphere that was too relaxed.

But that was only the beginning of a long process, which we’ll recap here.

The coach: The Rams’ hiring contingency — a group composed mostly of Demoff, general manager Les Snead and senior assistant Tony Pastoors — didn’t know what to make of Sean McVay when they met over dinner and discussed potential head-coaching candidates last December. But they were more intrigued by him than anybody, because he was so young and because the reviews about him were so glowing. McVay blew the Rams away in his first interview, so much that they thought about cancelling an East Coast trip to interview a handful of other candidates in the coming days. Demoff was unreasonably anxious about McVay’s meeting with the San Francisco 49ers, and that’s when it hit him that McVay needed to be his head coach — even if he was only 30 at the time. He was a sharp offensive mind, but also a magnetic leader. A star in the making. The Rams made him their new head coach — and the youngest head coach in modern NFL history — on Jan. 12.

The staff: Wade Phillips didn’t really know McVay. Phillips’ son, Wes, was a tight ends coach on the Washington Redskins while McVay served as their offensive coordinator. Wes spoke well of McVay. So when McVay asked Phillips to join him as his defensive coordinator, Phillips agreed, never thinking somebody so young could be a head coach. Phillips, 70, helped build a quintessential support staff for a young head coach. With Phillips, McVay doesn’t have to worry about defense. With John Fassel, in his sixth year with the Rams, McVay doesn’t have to worry about special teams. His quarterbacks coach (Greg Olson) and offensive line coach (Aaron Kromer) have a combined 14 years’ worth of experience as offensive coordinators. McVay’s offensive coordinator (Matt LaFleur) spent the previous two years working with Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan. His linebackers coach (Joe Barry) has been a defensive coordinator for four years, and his defensive line coach (Bill Johnson) has coached in the NFL for 17 years.
Rookie Cooper Kupp quickly developed into a reliable target for Rams quarterback Jared Goff. Kirby Lee/USA Today Sports
The draft: Their 2016 trade up to No. 1 left the Rams without a first-round pick and a need to be both efficient and creative. They needed more weapons for Goff, but they also needed to fill some gaps on defense. They wound up targeting mostly smart, high-character players who might have been overlooked at smaller schools. The Rams traded down, from 37th to 44th, to gain an additional third-round pick and made an athletic tight end out of South Alabama named Gerald Everett their first selection. They drafted Eastern Washington’s Cooper Kupp, who now leads rookie receivers in most categories, in the third round. That round also netted Boston College safety John Johnson, who quickly forced his way into the starting lineup. In the fourth, they selected Texas A&M receiver Josh Reynolds, whom the Rams thought could go in the second round, and Eastern Washington linebacker Samson Ebukam, who’s already an important part of their defense. It became one of the Rams’ best drafts.

The vets: The Rams had been one of the NFL’s youngest teams for a while, and the thought heading into the offseason was that perhaps that needed to change. They needed strong veteran leadership in their locker room. They also needed to weed out players they deemed unreliable. As Snead likes to say: “If you rely on the unreliable, you basically become unreliable.” Gone were Kenny Britt, an enigmatic wide receiver, Greg Robinson, a failed left tackle, and T.J. McDonald, a suspended safety. The Rams’ first move was to splurge on Andrew Whitworth, one of the game’s best left tackles. They then signed John Sullivan, a 10th-year center familiar with McVay’s system, and Connor Barwin, a ninth-year linebacker familiar with Phillips’ system. Robert Woods was signed in free agency and Sammy Watkins was acquired via trade, significantly bolstering the Rams’ receiving corps with two former Buffalo Bills. Cornerbacks Kayvon Webster and Nickell Robey-Coleman boosted the secondary.

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The wins: It didn’t take long for players to notice how sharp McVay was. They bought in quickly, and as they navigated through the offseason program and training camp, they felt that maybe — just maybe — they had the makings of a much better team than others projected. A playoff-caliber team, perhaps. But they couldn’t be certain until the games started counting. The Rams blew out a short-handed Indianapolis Colts team to start the season. Then they bounced back from a loss to the Redskins with back-to-back road wins, against the 49ers and Dallas Cowboys. They lost a game they should’ve won against the Seattle Seahawks, and then they won four in a row — against the Jacksonville Jaguars, Arizona Cardinals, New York Giants and Houston Texans — by a combined 103 points. It was clear by then that the Rams had vaulted themselves among the NFL’s elite, their offense humming along, their defense improving every week and their special teams a consistent force.

All in a year’s time.