Ezekiel Elliott insists he’s playing and has no hesitation saying the NFL rushing title is on his mind with the Dallas Cowboys locked into the fourth playoff seed as NFC East champions going into their regular-season finale at the New York Giants.
If the league rushing leader does play, it won’t be because coach Jason Garrett wants him to hold off Todd Gurley of the Los Angeles Rams and rookie Saquon Barkley, who will be on the opposing sideline with the Giants (5-10) on Sunday.
“We don’t talk very much about individual statistics for any of our players,” Garrett said. “What we’re trying to do is prepare the right way and play the right way each week to make our team the best it could be. And that’s really where our sole focus is.”
With 1,434 yards rushing, Elliott is 183 ahead of Gurley, who could miss the game against San Francisco with a minor knee injury as the Rams try to secure a first-round bye along with top-seeded New Orleans.
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Barkley trails by 236 yards, so even if Elliott doesn’t play, it would take a huge game from one of the two behind him to keep the former Ohio State star from winning his second rushing title in three years.
Elliott led the NFL as a rookie with 1,631 yards in 2016, and had the highest yards-per-game average last season when he served a six-game suspension for domestic violence allegations.
The 2016 All-Pro said it’s easier to consider individual honors with the focus already shifting to the playoffs before a Week 17 game with nothing on the line.
He just doesn’t want anyone mistaking that honesty for him being comfortable with the subject matter.
“I don’t really like talking about these other little things,” Elliott said. “I think we all know what the big goal in mind is, and I think that’s what’s most important. I think that’s what should be talked about.”
Elliott is on the verge of joining Earl Campbell, Eric Dickerson, Emmitt Smith and Edgerrin James as backs to win at least two rushing titles in their first three seasons since the 1970 merger.
Campbell, a Hall of Famer along with Dickerson and NFL career rushing leader and former Dallas star Smith, is the only one in that group to do it all three years.
“I think Zeke’s had a great year,” offensive coordinator Scott Linehan said. “He’s earned it. He’s had some games where he’s had to grind out, old school, 100-yard games. It’s not like he had three or four games where he had 200 yards. He’s had consistently around 100 each game.”
Elliott wants to play because he believes the Cowboys (9-6) need to maintain the momentum of six wins in seven games, a surge that took them from 3-5 to the division title.
Dallas played from ahead after an 11-game winning streak while winning the NFC East two years ago, led by the sensational debuts of Elliott and quarterback Dak Prescott, the NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year that season.
Prescott missed his backfield mate when the Cowboys lost their first three games without the suspended Elliott last season, a skid that ultimately kept them out of the playoffs even though Dallas wasn’t eliminated until Elliott’s first game back.
Now things look a lot like they did two years ago: Dallas headed to the postseason with the NFL’s leading rusher.
“He doesn’t really talk about it too much,” Prescott said. “I know he’s not a big stats guy but obviously him being the competitor, I know inside he wants it. I know he really wants it as I want it for him and I’m pretty sure the offensive line and everybody on this team wants it for him.”
And Elliott wants to play to get it, not sit and wait for it as he did two years ago in a meaningless regular-season finale against Philadelphia before a playoff bye and divisional loss to Green Bay.
“We are built a little bit different,” Elliott said. “We definitely rely more on our intensity and how hard we play and be in a groove. This is the right thing to do.”
And by that Elliott means playing the star running back.