The AFC West-leading Kansas City Chiefs head to Texas this weekend to face a Dallas Cowboys team at a crossroads.
The Cowboys (4-3) have posted back-to-back victories for the first time this season, winning at San Francisco and Washington the last two outings. But while Dallas appears to be gaining momentum, the drawn-out Ezekiel Elliott suspension saga seems continues to have its twists and turns with the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals granting an administrative stay on Friday and clearing the running back to play against the Chiefs.
Earlier in the week, it appeared Dallas would likely be playing without Elliott for the first time due to the six-game suspension for violation of the NFL’s personal-conduct policy.
The suspension was initially handed down by the league in August after an investigation into a domestic-assault claim against Elliott. That set off a series of appeals. Elliott was granted a restraining order against the NFL in September and again in October, allowing him to play in the first seven games. However, the NFL won appeals in both cases.
The Cowboys prepared Alfred Morris to be the starting running back with Darren McFadden and Rod Smith serving as backups prior to the reversal.
Morris should be fresh as he’s carried only 13 times so far this season despite averaging a team-best 8.1 yards per rush. Elliott was averaging 23 carries per game, but Morris and the other two running backs will likely split up that number if the Cowboys continue to be rush-heavy on offense.
“We have great confidence in the guys that are going to play in his place,” Jason Garrett said before Elliott’s potential absence was cleared up. “Alfred Morris and Darren McFadden and Rod Smith will all get opportunities to carry the football for us in different situations.”
Chiefs coach Andy Reid admitted uncertainty, and a degree of indifference, about the situation. Like Garrett, Reid downplayed the difference between Elliott and the Dallas backup running backs.
“I don’t know how all of that works, nor do I really care right now,” Reid said. “We know they also have a couple of other backs, one I’m familiar with the kid that played at Washington (Morris) and then obviously the kid that played at Oakland (McFadden). They’ve got a few running backs that are pretty good football players. We’ll prepare for their system and schemes that they use and go about it that way.”
Kansas City (6-2) doesn’t have to deal with any kind of ambiguity when its offense is on the field. The Chiefs have been rolling behind quarterback Alex Smith’s best season as a pro, the dynamic performance of tight end Travis Kelce and the breakout performance of rookie running back Kareem Hunt.
On Monday night, Smith connected with Kelce seven times for 133 yards, including a 29-yard touchdown that put Kansas City in front of Denver, 14-0, midway through the first quarter.
Although Hunt had a relatively quiet night on Monday, he’s leading the NFL in rushing yards with 763 and, as if that’s not enough, has 28 receptions for another 307 yards.
“Really good football player,” Garrett said about Hunt. “They do a great job on offense. They have a lot of different weapons and they know how to use them and (Hunt is) the engine behind that offense. They really like to hand him the football and he’s a very instinctive runner.”
Perhaps more worrisome for the Cowboys, Kansas City didn’t need to lean heavily on its offense for production against Denver on Monday.
The Chiefs defense intercepted three passes and recovered a fumble, which cornerback Marcus Peters returned 45 yards for a touchdown to put Kansas City ahead 7-0. Kansas City also recovered a fumble on punt coverage and kicker Harrison Butker made five field goals.
Dallas has had its struggles with dynamic offenses so far this season and prolific quarterbacks in particular. The Rams’ Jared Goff and the Packers’ Aaron Rodgers played key roles in handing the Cowboys back-to-back losses a few weeks back.
Smith, who has passed for 2,181 yards and 16 TDs with no interceptions, could be the next QB to frustrate the Dallas defense.
“Their quarterback is a maestro orchestrating their offense and Andy (Reid) obviously does a great job of putting it all together,” Garrett said. “You can see why they’ve had the success that they’ve had.”