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2014 Schedule Preview: Games 9-12

Posted Apr 23, 2014

The Panthers and Eagles last played in Week 12 of 2012, when Carolina mounted a fourth-quarter comeback to win, 30-22 on Monday Night Football at Lincoln Financial Field. This year, the two will once again square off in Philadelphia on Monday Night Football.

Cam Newton and Nick Foles squared off then, but both teams were in the midst of tremendously disappointing seasons. Each experienced a rebirth in 2013, winning their respective divisions and making the playoffs. The Eagles finished 10-6 to capture the NFC East, while the Panthers finished 12-4 to capture the NFC South and the second seed in the NFC Playoffs. The Eagles and Panthers shared a similar fate in the playoffs, however, as each neophyte team lost home games to veteran, battle-tested squads in the New Orleans Saints and San Francisco 49ers, respectively. They are both viewed as up-and-coming contenders who should be in the thick of the playoff picture in the NFC for years to come.

Cam Newton continued his ascent in 2013, completing 61.7 percent of his passes for 3,379 yards, 24 touchdowns, 13 interceptions and an 88.8 quarterback rating, while adding 585 yards and six touchdowns rushing. Whereas the Eagles offense thrived on quick strikes and plays that ripped off 20-plus yards at a time, the Panthers offense relied on a methodical approach to matriculating the ball down the field, churning out yards, chewing up the clock and averaging 31:54 of possession time per game (fifth in the NFL). Each team relied on running the football but were complete opposites stylistically from an offensive standpoint. The Panthers might have to rely on running the ball even more in 2014 after losing wide receivers Steve Smith and Brandon LaFell, though the offense will attempt to replace them with Jerricho Cotchery, Tiquan Underwood, former Eagle Jason Avant and, probably, a draft pick or two.

Really, however, the Panthers defense was the story of their 2013 season. The unit, led by reigning Defensive Player of the Year Luke Kuechly, was as physical and intimidating as any in the NFL and quickly rose to an elite level. It ranked second against the run (86.9 yards per game), sixth against the pass (214.3 yards per game), second in total yards (301.3 yards per game), second in points allowed (15.1 per game), tied for fifth in takeaways (29) and led the league in sacks (60).

The Eagles will travel to Lambeau Field for the second time in as many seasons to take on the Green Bay Packers in 2014. The Eagles won last year's matchup between these two teams in 2013, 27-13, capped by a brilliant drive that consumed the final nine-plus minutes of the fourth quarter. Of course, the Packers were without franchise cornerstone Aaron Rodgers in that game, instead relying on Seneca Wallace and Scott Tolzien under center.

Rodgers returned from a broken collarbone in Week 17 of the 2013 season for the NFC North championship game against the Chicago Bears and helped lead the Packers to victory, thanks to a 48-yard touchdown strike to Randall Cobb on fourth down with under 40 seconds left. At 8-7-1, the Packers hosted the San Francisco 49ers in Lambeau but lost a heartbreaker, 23-20, on a field goal as time expired.

The Packers stuck to their modus operandi of re-signing their own players prior to free agency – cornerback Sam Shields to a four-year deal, defensive lineman B.J. Raji to a one-year deal, outside linebacker Mike Neal to a two-year deal, running back James Starks to a two-year deal and tight end Andrew Quarless to a two-year deal – but made one significant splash, bringing in defensive end Julius Peppers, who was cut by the rival Bears. Peppers is 34 years old and had a down season in 2013, like the entire Bears defense, but is determined to prove he still has juice left in the tank. The defense still has Clay Matthews coming off the edge, and Andy Mulumba will get a chance to prove his worth as a pass rusher after coming on late in his rookie season.

Rodgers lost center Evan Dietrich-Smith, wide receiver James Jones and tight end Jermichael Finley, but he still has his most important offensive weapons in Jordy Nelson, Randall Cobb and Eddie Lacy. The Packers, if healthy, figure to be the favorites in the NFC North once again.

Through the first three-and-a-half games of the 2013 season, things were looking up for the Tennessee Titans. They were well on their way to a victory over the New York Jets to bring their record to 3-1. Even more importantly, quarterback Jake Locker was playing the best football of his career, proving his worth as the eighth-overall draft pick in 2011.

Then it all went downhill.

The Titans would go on to defeat the Jets, but Locker would suffer a hip injury early in the third quarter. After missing two games (both of which the Titans lost), Locker returned to the lineup in Week 7, but two games later, disaster struck again. This time, it was a season-ending Lisfranc injury to his right foot. Ryan Fitzpatrick did a serviceable job filling in, but it wasn't enough for the Titans to salvage their season. Tennessee went 4-3 in games started by Locker, but they won just three out of nine games with Fitzpatrick at the helm. The Titans did win their final two games of the season to finish just one game under .500, but there is still a question of what could have been had Locker stayed healthy.

With all of that in mind, it wasn't necessarily Fitzpatrick's fault that the team sputtered. In fact, the Harvard grad completed 62 percent of his passes and threw more touchdowns than interceptions. The biggest problem for the Titans offense was another down year for running back Chris Johnson, who has since been released by the team. Johnson rushed for 1,077 yards last season, which would be considered a strong season for most backs, but more was expected out of a man who rushed for 2,006 yards in 2009. He found the end zone just six times in 2013 and his salary cap hit became too much for the Titans to take. Veteran Shonn Greene was a solid back-up last season, and he should see a lot of snaps in 2014.

The Titans were very active in free agency this offseason. Arguably their biggest catch was signing wide receiver/punt returner/Mr. Everything Dexter McCluster. The Ole Miss product, who is coming off of his first Pro Bowl selection, was productive for the Kansas City Chiefs during his first four NFL seasons in a number of different capacities, and the Titans are hoping that he can fill the same roles after switching colors from red to blue. The Titans also scooped up offensive tackle Michael Oher, formerly of the Baltimore Ravens, and defensive end Shaun Phillips and linebacker Wesley Woodyard from the Denver Broncos.

Defensively, the Titans took a huge blow in free agency. Pro Bowl cornerback Alterraun Verner, who intercepted five passes in 2013, was signed by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to inhabit an area that was once known as Revis Island.

The last time the Eagles and Titans met was 2010, with Tennessee coming away with a 37-19 victory. Eagles fans may remember that game for Kenny Britt's seven-catch, 225-yard, three-touchdown performance. The good news for Eagles fans heading into this year's meeting is that Britt is no longer a member of the Titans, as the wide receiver signed a deal with the St. Louis Rams earlier this offseason.

Perhaps the league's greatest gift to Eagles fans upon the release of this year's schedule is the promise of getting to watch your favorite team on Turkey Day. The Eagles will close out the third quarter of their 2014 schedule with a trip to Dallas for a Thanksgiving tilt with the hated Cowboys. The Eagles last played on Thanksgiving in 2008 and are 4-1 all-time in Thanksgiving games, having won the last three.

The classic rivalry between the Eagles and Cowboys, meanwhile, enters its 55th season in 2014, coming off a 54th season that certainly delivered.

The first time the Eagles and Cowboys met in 2013 was a knock-down, drag-out affair in which the Cowboys defense thwarted the Eagles' high-flying offensive attack. A hard hit at the end of the third quarter resulted in a concussion for a struggling Nick Foles, who had the worst game of his pro career, and forced Matt Barkley into his first-ever NFL action. The rookie performed admirably in a pinch and was able to move the offense down the field, but he ended up throwing three interceptions as the Eagles fell, 17-3.

The second time the Eagles and Cowboys met produced a much more memorable game, which served as the de facto NFC East championship game. Tony Romo was unable to play because of a back injury, but backup Kyle Orton stepped in and nearly piloted the Cowboys to an improbable victory. The game was close throughout, but the Eagles were able to squeak out the 24-22 win on the heels of Cary Williams' pass breakup on a late two-point conversion attempt and Brandon Boykin's interception of Orton on the final drive.

A Cowboys defense that was one of the league's worst in 2013 lost future Hall-of-Famer DeMarcus Ware as a salary cap casualty and Jason Hatcher to free agency. The team hopes former Chicago Bear Henry Melton (coming off an ACL injury), Terrell McClain and Jeremy Mincey can help fill the void along the defensive line. Tony Romo is expected to be fully recovered from back surgery and ready for Training Camp, and the offense, which was one of the NFL's most efficient in 2013, will come back with essentially the same cast.

Schedule Previews:

Games 1-4 (JAX, @IND, WAS, @SF)

Games 5-8 (STL, NYG, @ARI, @HOU)

Games 13-16 (SEA, DAL, @WAS, @NYG)

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