IRVING, Texas -- Emmitt Smith usually plays his best when there's a lot at stake. So maybe it's fitting he needs his best day of the season Sunday to break the NFL career rushing record at home.
Smith is 93 yards from ending Walter Payton's 18-year reign as the rushing leader. In the past, Smith could be counted on to gain that much.
But now he's averaging only 64 yards per game, with a high of 82. If he can't top that against the Seattle Seahawks, he'll likely break the mark on the road; the Dallas Cowboys don't return to Texas Stadium until Nov. 24.
Although Smith has been aiming for the record his entire career, he's trying not to let it warp his perspective this week. He had his wife answer the phone at night to keep down distractions, yet he expects more butterflies than usual before kickoff.
''My approach this week is the same as every week,'' he said. ''The change is that there are more cameras, more talking, but my thoughts in terms of what I have to do to prepare mentally and physically has not changed.''
The Cowboys have been marketing Smith's pursuit of the record for two seasons. They put up ''See Emmitt Run'' billboards last year. This season's tickets show pictures of Smith's milestones. Sunday's game features the January 1994 Super Bowl in which he was the MVP.
The next memorable snapshot will be the record-setting run.
''I want it to be a touchdown,'' he said, ''but just because I want it doesn't mean it's going to happen. We'll have to see how it plays out.''
The Seahawks (1-5) are the perfect foe. They allow a league-worst 189.5 yards rushing per game and they've already given up season-high games to four players.
Still, Smith knows Seattle's weaknesses are ''not a guarantee that I will have a successful game,'' and many of the reasons are beyond his control.
After years of running behind Pro Bowl blockers, Dallas' starting line likely will include a player signed last week; a converted defensive end making only his third start; and a rookie center. Among the backups are two players signed Wednesday and a rookie who has played one game.
Then there's the passing game -- or lack of one.
Frustrated by Quincy Carter's frequent mistakes, the Cowboys (3-4) this week gave the starting quarterback job to Chad Hutchinson. His last snap came five years ago when he was a sophomore at Stanford. He spent the last four years in pro baseball.
''I'm not sitting here thinking, 'I haven't played football in five years.' I'm thinking, 'Let's get better today and go out there on Sunday and help this team win,''' Hutchinson said.
With little to fear from an inexperienced quarterback, the Seahawks can concentrate on stopping the run. That could mean committing an extra player or two to thwarting Smith.
''As a linebacker, you hate, hate, hate, hate for a running back to set any kind of record against you,'' Seattle's Anthony Simmons said.
Smith's climb up the rushing chart has taken him past childhood heroes and contemporaries. Often, he's done it with flair.
-- He broke Tony Dorsett's team rushing record in 1998 with a 163-yard game, his best in three years. He hasn't topped it since.
-- The following year, Smith dedicated a Monday night game in memory of Payton, who died a few days before. He had 140 yards after 24 minutes, but broke his right hand on the second-to-last carry.
That carry, by the way, was a 63-yard touchdown, third-longest of his career, and it put him past Eric Dickerson for third on the career rushing list. He followed it with a 24-yard touchdown run, tying Marcus Allen for second on the career TD list. Thanks to a fumbled kickoff, the scores came 18 seconds apart, an NFL record for one player.
-- Last December, Smith's streak of 1,000-yard seasons was in jeopardy when he was 310 yards away with three games left. Then he had his best back-to-back games since '98, letting him crack 1,000 in the finale.
It was the 11th time, setting records for overall and in a row.
''Emmitt plays his absolute best in the big games, which is the mark of a great player,'' said Seattle coach Mike Holmgren, who faced the Smith-led Cowboys in the playoffs when he was with Green Bay and San Francisco. ''The bigger the game, the better he is.''
A record more likely to fall Sunday is the Cowboys' career mark for tackles, held by Lee Roy Jordan. Safety Darren Woodson has 1,235 stops and needs two for the team lead.
Woodson and Smith are the only holdovers from the Dallas teams that won three Super Bowls in the 1990s. Another member of that group who will be at Texas Stadium is Daryl Johnston, the fullback Smith credits with teaching him ''how to get into the playbook'' when he was a rookie, and for sacrificing his body ''for three-fourths or 90 percent of my yardage.''
Smith has said that of all his high-profile former teammates now in broadcasting -- Troy Aikman, Michael Irvin and Deion Sanders -- Johnston was the one he'd most like to have call the record-breaking run. Fox juggled its normal lineup to let ''Moose'' work this game with Pat Summerall.
''Me and Daryl share a very special bond,'' Smith said. ''When I was out of place, he was in the right place to recover a fumble. When I needed to get from the right side to the left side, he made the key block.''
If the record is set Sunday, the game will be stopped briefly. There will be an elaborate post-game ceremony on the field.
If he gets it on the road, the tribute will come during halftime of the next home game.
Seattle has yet to win on the road, sending Holmgren to the worst start of his 11-year coaching career. To try snapping out of it, he's planning to give more playing time to several rookies and second-year players.
''We're in such a deep hole right now,'' Holmgren said. ''Everyone has to get better. I'm not saying make the quantum leap, but everyone has to get better to give us a chance to win.''
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