In a bout between two carbon-copy championship contenders, the Philadelphia Eagles (5-1) narrowly prevailed, besting the Carolina Panthers (4-2), 28-23, at Bank of America Stadium in Week 6. Here’s what we learned from the close victory:
1. Carolina had its chances. After pulling within five and forcing an Eagles punt with over five minutes to go, the Panthers embarked on a potential game-winning drive. But with Cam Newton noticeably bothered by something following his acrobatic touchdown attempt on the previous drive, the quarterback missed on multiple deep pass attempts, nearly getting picked off by Rasul Douglas on a deep overthrow and then tossing an interception to Jalen Mills on a deep overthrow of Kelvin Benjamin. After some poor clock management by Philadelphia, Carolina had another opportunity, but neglected to run the ball on third-and-short near midfield. Cam’s third-down pass was deflected at the line and on fourth, the QB short-armed Christian McCaffrey across the middle. For a Panthers offense turned one-dimensional, Newton, who threw three interceptions on the night, couldn’t deliver at the bell.
2. Carson Wentz had another solid outing in a season full of them. The Eagles quarterback spread the ball around, completing a pass to eight different receivers, and continued his dalliances with tight end Zach Ertz (two more TDs) and wideout Nelson Agholor (55 yards, TD). Wentz has already mastered the ability to look off safeties and move quickly through reads, all the while proving agile in a pocket that collapsed often without right tackle Lane Johnson. Wentz took nine QB hits and three sacks, and was noticeably bothered when hurried, overthrowing his wideouts all too often. A late miss to a wide-open Ertz that would have salted away the win infuriated the second-year pro. But Wentz and his balanced Philly offense did enough against a top-tier defense to secure the victory and assume dominance atop the conference.
“Having a full offseason under my belt, the game has really slowed down. There’s still mistakes out there, there’s still plenty of plays you want back. But I’m seeing things a lot quicker,” Wentz said on the TNF Postgame set on NFL Network. “I’m feeling way more comfortable with the offense, with the checks and everything else that goes with it. And then also just as a team. We’re all playing faster, we’re playing together and ultimately, like I said, we’re finding ways to win ballgames.”
3. Questionable coming into this game, Fletcher Cox was unquestionably the most dominant defender on the field on Thursday night. Cox tallied two QB hits and half a sacks and provided a crucial bull-rush of guard Trai Turner deep in Panthers territory and late in the second quarter that forced a Cam Newton interception and led to a tide-turning Eagles touchdown. The centerpiece of a Philly front seven that mauled a Carolina O-line missing starting center Ryan Kalil and eliminated the Panthers‘ rushing attack, holding Carolina’s backs to nine (!) yards on the night, Cox, alongside Brandon Graham and Timmy Jernigan, deserves our respect.
4. In the run game, McCaffrey has been used as a decoy, and not much else. The Panthers rookie runner (eight yards on four carries) enjoyed another quiet night on the ground. Heralded for his elusiveness coming out of Stanford, McCaffrey underwhelmed against Philly, who bottled him up and made him hesitant with his cuts on screens and punt returns. The first-year back was mostly good for opening up holes for Cam Newton on run-pass options — though why ends and linebackers bite on the ineffective McCaffrey is beyond me. McCaffrey has been phased out of the ground game, averaging just 4.3 runs over the last four weeks, and is instead showing up as a short-yardage receiver (10 for 56 yards, TD).
Unsurprisingly, Cam finished as Carolina’s leading rusher with 71 yards. As evidenced by Newton’s missed missiles at the end of the game, the quarterback can’t afford to take the beating every week like he did on Thursday night. But if the ineffectiveness of McCaffrey and Jonathan Stewart (negative-four yards!) persists, that will be the inevitable outcome.
5. Agholor is having quite a comeback season. One year after being briefly relegating to the bench, Agholor has thrived in the slot, thanks to the acquisitions of Alshon Jeffery and Torrey Smith. His comeback campaign continued on Thursday night, as Agholor caught four balls for 55 yards and turned on the burners on a fourth-quarter slant-and-score. Aside from Ertz, Agholor has been undoubtedly Philly’s most valuable receiver this season.
6. Speaking of valuable Eagles worthy of attention, why isn’t Philadelphia riding LeGarrette Blount more? The back came into the game averaging 5.8 yards per carry and broke off multiple 10-plus-yard gains against Carolina, but too often, Doug Pederson put in third-string speedster Kenjon Barner in on first and second downs. Blount is built to create third-and-manageables; Barner is a gadget guy. Philly converted just 36 percent of their third downs on Thursday, a far cry from their league-best 53.4 percent coming in.
7. Keep an eye on the health of Luke Kuechly. The essential Panthers linebacker suffered yet another concussion, his third in as many years, on an awkward block late in the second quarter. He was immediately placed into the concussion protocol and ruled out of the game.