The premiere NFL matchup of Week 6 happens to come on a weekday. The Eagles (4-1) visit the Carolina Panthers (4-1) in Charlotte to determine momentary supremacy in the NFC. According to NFL Research, this is just the fourth time in four years where both Thursday Night Football opponents are at least three games over .500 — so enjoy.
Here’s what we’re watching for as the Eagles face the Panthers at 8 p.m. ET Thursday on CBS, NFL Network and streaming on Amazon Prime Video:
1. Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz made an interesting point this week when discussing preparation for Cam Newton and Mike Shula’s offense. He felt that a recent game against the Kansas City Chiefs (Philadelphia’s lone loss in 2017) left them in pretty good shape to face Carolina.
“In some ways it was good to have some of the Kansas City stuff that we had to prepare against,” Schwartz said. “It’s not the same offense, but there are some similarities as far as jet sweeps and shovel passes and things like that. Every short week there’s going to be challenges. I think that these would be challenges even if it was coming off a bye [week] or an extra day, if it was a Monday night game and you had an extra day, just happens to be a short week.”
The Eagles forced the Chiefs into arguably their second-worst offensive performance of the season this year, though that really isn’t something to write home about considering Kansas City still put up 344 total yards and 27 points. But … in watching the Panthers this season I don’t see them as committed to the insanely intertwined series of boots, traps and sweeps which propel Andy Reid’s offense — and I think it’s part of the reason Carolina has yet to completely optimize their offense.
2. That being said, Cam Newton is always worth watching, but especially over these last two weeks. Since Week 4, he has been the league’s top-rated passer, according to NFL research. It feels like he’s over the loss of Greg Olsen and is forcing himself to trust — and highlight — the rangy, big-bodied receivers Carolina’s previous GM installed just for Newton. An example? Devin Funchess is catching more passes per game (4.8) than he has in each of his first two seasons. His yards per game has more than doubled from last year’s final average.
3. We waste a lot of time comparing quarterbacks head to head before games, and there will be a tendency to latch Carson Wentz‘s growth to the resurgent season Cam Newton is having. Let’s separate the two for a moment. Wentz is the best third-down quarterback in the league right now and the Panthers have the second-best third-down defense in the league. If we want tangible evidence of progress, let’s see how Wentz fares in the average third-and-8 situation against one of the best defenses in the league. Then, weâll start comparing his numbers to Newton.
4. Christian McCaffrey‘s 101-yard receiving game against the Saints stands out as his “breakout performance” candidate thus far, though I would argue that the Panthers haven’t tapped into more than 10 percent of his potential. McCaffrey’s rushing opportunities have declined almost every week, from a high of 13 in Week 1 to three against the Lions last week. It would seem that facing the league’s No. 2 rushing defense would not be the time to expand McCaffrey’s role, but at some point the Panthers are going to have to establish a non-Newton based rushing threat (the Panthers are 19th in rushing) on a consistent basis. Jonathan Stewart‘s 3.3 yards per carry might not do it.
5. Another interesting NFL research note: As much as we’ve talked about both quarterbacks, both teams sit atop the league in time of possession. The Eagles are starting to feature LeGarrette Blount more as a clock-eater while the Panthers have been getting better at extending drives through the air.