Patriots' Ezekiel Elliott looking forward to facing Cowboys

Ezekiel Elliott and the Patriots visit his former team, the Dallas Cowboys, next week. Seth Wenig/Associated Press

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- Running back Ezekiel Elliott knows what’s next, and he’s looking forward to it.

It was shortly after his best performance of the 2023 season, totaling 80 yards on 16 carries in the New England Patriots’ 15-10 win over the New York Jets on Sunday, when Elliott was surrounded by reporters in the cramped visitors locker room.

His thoughts on facing his former team, the Dallas Cowboys?

“It’s going to be fun. I’m excited to go back to Dallas, a place where I have so much history, my home in the offseason,” he said. “It will be cool to get back in AT&T [Stadium].”

Elliott, 28, hasn’t talked much about his departure from the Cowboys -- where he played the first seven years of his NFL career -- since signing a one-year contract with the Patriots in mid-August. He touched on the topic Sunday, but chose his words carefully.

“I was definitely disappointed but everything happens for a reason,” he said. “God has his plan for us. I’m excited for this next chapter in my life. I’m excited to be a Patriot, I’m excited to go chase a Super Bowl here.”

When asked whether he hoped to play his entire career with Dallas, he said: “No one wants to leave the team they’re with, but more importantly, I’m very happy with where I’m at.”

The Patriots are happy to have him, and they leaned on him Sunday more than they had in the first two games of the season, in which he had a combined 12 carries for 42 yards, five receptions for 14 yards and a fumble.

Elliott is the backup to Rhamondre Stevenson, but that didn’t stop him from carrying the ball in critical situations in Sunday’s win.

“We’re getting a little bit of a feel for some of the things with him and vice versa,” coach Bill Belichick said. “I thought he had a couple real good runs, thought he did a nice job getting his pads down, got some tough yards, and his vision was good on a couple cutback plays.”

While the Patriots’ win over the Jets didn’t come with style points, Elliott’s emergence -- coupled with continuity and improved health along the offensive line that contributed to a more balanced attack -- was one of the team’s most important storylines.

Offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien essentially said last week that the Patriots couldn’t sustain the pace they had through the first two games of the season, when quarterback Mac Jones led the NFL with 96 pass attempts. Against the Jets, the Patriots totaled 40 rushes for 157 yards (3.9 average), with Jones attempting 29 passes.

Elliott said he felt fresh after two weeks because he had played 50 snaps, the fewest he could remember to open a season. It showed on Sunday, with teammates taking note of how he looked different than in earlier games.

“When you’re out of football for so long, it takes a little bit to get your legs underneath you and find your rhythm. I think he’s finding his rhythm now,” safety Jabrill Peppers said. “He’s running hard, protecting the ball better. In my opinion, we have two of the best in the league back there, so we’re going to keep feeding them.”

The 6-foot, 228-pound Elliott believes the Patriots’ culture and style of play suits him because he prides himself on wearing opponents down. He likes his pairing with Stevenson, calling them both “big, physical backs” and noting “there isn’t any fall off when Rhamondre comes out so there’s constant pressure on the defense.”

Elliott’s ready to apply that to his former team, in the stadium where he won a college national championship, playing in front of the “normal crowd” of his parents, girlfriend and grandmother, among others.

“I’m looking at it as any other week. Just another game,” he said, before letting his guard down briefly and adding: “It will be fun to get back out there in front of the Dallas fans.”