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Column: Plenty of teams still have work to do to get in playoffs, including Rams and Chargers

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Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott returns from a six-game suspension this weekend against the Seahawks. Will it be in time to save Dallas’ playoff hopes?
(Roger Steinman / Associated Press)

Mirror, mirror.

The Rams have a chance to go from 4-12 to 12-4.

All four of the division leaders in the NFC finished in either third or fourth place last season.

Todd Gurley, who didn’t have a single 100-yard game last season, has five and is a legitimate most valuable player candidate.

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Such is the topsy-turvy nature of the NFL, where success is measured not only in Ws and Ls but U-turns.

Four teams have clinched their divisions — Philadelphia, New England, Pittsburgh and Minnesota — meaning four more are still up for grabs.

Like receivers with a ball in their hands, the division-leading Rams, Kansas City Chiefs and Jacksonville Jaguars still have to make a “football move” to complete the catch.

The real traffic jam is in the NFC South, which could produce not only a division winner but also both wild-card teams.

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This week features no Thursday game, two Saturday games, a dozen on Christmas Eve, and a Monday doubleheader on Christmas.

The Rams (10-4) play at Tennessee (8-6) on Sunday, a rematch of a long-ago Super Bowl, and face a team coming off back-to-back losses to NFC West clubs. The Titans, who beat Seattle in Week 3, lost on the road to Arizona and San Francisco in the past two weeks and are trying to clinch a playoff spot.

Something else about the Titans: They’re partly the reason the Rams have quarterback Jared Goff. It was Tennessee that dealt them the No. 1 overall pick two years ago in a blockbuster trade.

Even though the Chargers (7-7) lost a pivotal game at Kansas City on Saturday, they still could win the AFC West if they win their final two (Sunday at 5-9 New York Jets and home vs. Oakland) and the Chiefs lose out (Sunday vs. Miami, at Denver).

There are some more complicated but plausible scenarios in which the Chargers could get a wild card, and for those it would help if the Rams win at Tennessee.

The New York Times has a “playoff simulator” that estimates the likelihood of individual teams making the playoffs. The Chargers have a 13% chance, slightly better than the Dallas Cowboys (11%).

Cowboys fans are excited, nonetheless, with their team riding a three-game winning streak coming into Sunday’s game against Seattle. Although the Cowboys and Seahawks are both 8-6, they are heading in opposite directions, with Dallas getting running back Ezekiel Elliott back this week from his six-game suspension, and Seattle losing two in a row and smarting from a 42-7 thrashing by the Rams.

According to an NFL.com report, Elliott spent the past six weeks training in Cabo San Lucas, and pictures of him indicate he’s lost some weight and is in prime condition.

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Cowboys Coach Jason Garrett was noncommittal Monday when asked how much he plans to use Elliott in the final two games.

“Just have to wait and see,” Garrett told reporters. “Got to see how he is [Tuesday], got to see how he practices as the week goes on.”

Especially with the weather conditions in many NFL cities at this time of year, the teams that can run and stop the run in December have a real advantage in the postseason.

Seahawks Coach Pete Carroll said Monday that he was most disappointed by his team’s inability to stop the Rams’ ground attack. Gurley ran for 152 yards and three of his four touchdowns.

“The last time we played these guys, we were able to hold Todd Gurley to, I don’t know, 50, 60 yards or something like that,” Carroll said — 43 yards, actually — “and [Gurley] was a huge factor in this game obviously that we weren’t able to control.”

The biggest blowout of the weekend wasn’t Rams-Seahawks, but Jacksonville’s 45-7 demolition of Houston, prompting stories that Texans Coach Bill O’Brien might be on his way out the door.

“I will never quit as head coach of the Houston Texans,” O’Brien told reporters Monday. His four-win team plays host to 11-3 Pittsburgh on Christmas, the early game before Oakland (6-8) plays at Philadelphia (12-2). The Steelers are coming off a heartbreaking home loss to New England.

Jacksonville (10-4), which has a two-game lead in the AFC South and is guaranteed at least a wild card, plays at San Francisco (4-10) and hopes to extend its winning streak to four.

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Even though the Jaguars’ Blake Bortles threw three touchdown passes and no interceptions against the Texans, Houston outside linebacker Jadeveon Clowney was unimpressed.

Put succinctly by Clowney: “He trash.”

Bortles can brush that off. His season doesn’t end in two weeks.

sam.farmer@latimes.com

Follow Sam Farmer on Twitter @LATimesfarmer


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