FRISCO, Texas (AP) — Ezekiel Elliott won his second NFL rushing title in three seasons for a Dallas offense that has been defined by the ground game for several years now.
Seattle takes the league’s No. 1 rushing offense into a wild-card playoff against the Cowboys on Saturday night, led by Chris Carson, but with more help from others than your average pro backfield .
While receiver Amari Cooper’s impact on the Dallas passing game was dramatic following a midseason trade, and Seattle’s Russell Wilson again finished among the NFL leaders in touchdowns passing, both teams figure to try to control the second postseason meeting between these franchises with their running backs.
“We have a formula here,” said Dallas right guard Zack Martin, who has made the Pro Bowl in all five of his seasons. “Usually if we win a game, we kind of stick to that formula. It’s always a tough game against those guys. It’s kind of a bone-on-bone game. We’ve got our work cut out for us.”
Elliott finished with 1,434 yards while setting a club record for catches by a running back with 77, one more than Herschel Walker 32 years ago. His 2,001 yards from scrimmage were second to New York Giants rookie Saquon Barkley.
The 23-year-old former Ohio State star had the first 40-touch game of his career, a 29-23 overtime win against defending Super Bowl champion Philadelphia that all but wrapped up the NFC East for the Cowboys (10-6).
With the fourth seed in the playoffs locked up, the Cowboys sat Elliott in the regular-season finale against the New York Giants. Dak Prescott showcased his passing game with a rally for a 36-35 win, but that’s unlikely to be the way Dallas advances in the postseason.
“Knowing going into these playoffs I’m going to have probably the heaviest workload I’ve had all season,” Elliott said, “so great getting fresh and ready going into this last stretch of the season and ready for what they throw at me.”
The Seahawks (10-6) will throw multiple backs at the Cowboys, starting with Carson. With 1,151 yards rushing, Carson became the club’s first 1,000-yard rusher since Marshawn Lynch on Seattle’s most recent Super Bowl qualifier in 2014.
Throw in Mike Davis (514 yards), Rashaad Penny (419) and Wilson (376), and the Seahawks have the first backfield with a 1,000-yard rusher and three with at least 300 yards since the 2001 Pittsburgh Steelers.
Seattle is averaging 160 yards rushing per game, while Dallas finished the regular season ranked 10th at 123.
“The offensive line has just really come into their own — No. 1 rush team in the NFL for us, which is something that we really wanted to do is to run the ball this year and also play-action and do our thing,” Wilson said. “Those guys have been a big, big thing for us.”
Carson, a second-year back drafted in the seventh round, had his first 100-yard game with 102 yards on a career-high 32 carries in the first meeting with Dallas this season, a 24-13 Seattle victory in Week 3 after the Seahawks had started 0-2.
While the Cowboys let Seattle control the game with its rushing attack, they still held Carson to 3.2 yards per carry, his lowest average of the season. Defense kept Dallas in the game despite one of the worst offensive showings of the season.
“So much of this is about us and what we need to do to play good run defense,” Cowboys coach Jason Garrett said. “It’s about us being fundamentally sound and being physical and being in our gaps and setting edges and running to the ball and being a great tackling team regardless of who they hand it to or what kind of runs they use.”
There isn’t much mystery in who will get the handoffs for the Cowboys. Elliott carried 304 times, 18 fewer than when he led the league in rushing as a rookie in 2016. Backup Rod Smith had just 44 rushes, 12 of those when Elliott sat against the Giants.
Really, the No. 2 running option for Dallas is quarterback Dak Prescott, who has six rushing TDs in each of his three regular seasons. While the Cowboys have been at their best when Prescott shows the running threat, they will spend plenty of time trying to establish Elliott early.
“The ball is in his hands most of the time,” Seattle coach Pete Carroll said. “I don’t know him at all, but I am sure he’s a great competitor, he just plays like it. It all matters to him and there’s an intensity about his play that has made him already a significant player in the league.”