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For the first time since the 2009 season opener, the Eagles are going to Carolina.
It's the middle of three straight primetime battles for the Eagles and a chance to secure a winning record heading into the bye week, a task that seemed almost unobtainable just a few weeks ago when the team was 1-3. But since that slow start, the Eagles have won back-to-back home games to catapult themselves into the division lead. The next test on the schedule looms large, as the Eagles hit the road to take on an undefeated Carolina Panthers team.
Led by star quarterback Cam Newton, the Panthers are one of five remaining unbeaten teams. Their unblemished record was on the ropes last week in Seattle, but a late touchdown pass to Greg Olsen capped off a remarkable comeback victory. Could the physical play of the Seahawks lead to any kind of hangover for the Panthers this weekend?
At the same time, the Panthers' defense also plays a physical style of football that has been punishing opponents this season. Linebacker Luke Kuechly and cornerback Josh Norman help lead a unit that ranks in the top 10 in yards per game, points per game and interceptions. The Eagles' offense played well enough to get a victory against New York last week, but they'll have to be firing on all cylinders against Carolina. Eliminating turnovers will go a long way.
The Eagles caught a glimpse of what they can expect from Carolina last year, as the Panthers came to Lincoln Financial Field for Monday Night Football. The Eagles played one of their best games of the season in all three phases. The offense racked up 365 total yards, the defense sacked Newton nine times and ran an interception back for a touchdown and Darren Sproles ran a punt back 65 yards for a score. The Eagles will surely be looking to rekindle some of that Monday night magic this time around, though the sledding will be rougher since the game is on the road.
The Eagles are 2-0 under Chip Kelly in the week before their bye. Heading into what is basically the halfway point of the season with a winning record could go a long way toward the Eagles' playoff chances. Here's the preview ...
- Alex Smith
Last Time They Met
Eagles 45, Panthers 21
November 10, 2014 - Lincoln Financial Field
In one of the most dominant defensive performances in Chip Kelly's tenure as head coach, the Eagles sacked Cam Newton nine times and forced five turnovers. The Eagles jumped out to a 10-0 lead in the opening minutes of the game, converting a 39-yard field goal on their opening drive before turning a Newton interception into a Darren Sproles touchdown.
The Panthers responded with a touchdown from running back Jonathan Stewart to make it 10-7 at the six-minute mark of the first quarter, but from that point until midway through the fourth quarter they were held scoreless. The Philadelphia lead ballooned to 45-7 during that period, with the defense intercepting Newton twice more and forcing him to fumble the ball twice.
Connor Barwin had one of his best games as a pro, racking up 3.5 sacks while playing the role of spy against Newton, who was held to just 6 yards on two rushes. Brandon Graham (1.5 sacks) Vinny Curry (1.0), Fletcher Cox (1.0) and Trent Cole (1.0) also brought down the quarterback.
Sproles scored a pair of touchdowns in the game, one on an 8-yard rush and another on a 65-yard punt return. Both came in the first quarter. Wide receiver Jordan Matthews also had a big game, hauling in seven catches for a career-high 138 yards and two touchdowns. Tight end Brent Celek also went over the century mark, catching five balls for 116 yards.
Mark Sanchez completed 20 of his 37 passes for 332 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions, while Newton went 25 for 40 for 306 yards, two touchdowns and three interceptions. The win allowed Philadelphia to improve to 7-2 on the season and dropped Carolina to 3-6-1.
- Max Rappaport
When The Eagles Have The Ball
In Weeks 5 and 6, the Eagles' offense broke out of its early-season slump, scoring 66 combined points and gaining 947 combined yards (473.5 per game) after averaging 19.5 points and 294.0 yards per game in their first four contests. Defensively, the Panthers rank eighth in the league points allowed (18.8 per game) and seventh in yards allowed (338.0 per contest). But over the past two weeks, those numbers have risen to 23.0 and 372.5, respectively.
The majority of the recent damage done against Carolina has come on the ground. After holding opponents to 75.7 rushing yards per game through Week 3, the Panthers allowed the Buccaneers and Seahawks to go for 256.0 rushing yards combined (128.0 yards per game). The Eagles have found a rhythm in the running game as of late too and will look to keep that trend going.
Coming into the year, Philadelphia's three-headed rushing attack of DeMarco Murray, Ryan Mathews and Darren Sproles was expected to be one of the most dominant groups in recent memory. But injuries and miscues along the offensive line left the team averaging just 70.0 yards per game in its first four games. In Weeks 5 and 6, though, the Eagles' offense finally looked like the one fans expected to see when the year began, rushing for an average of 172.0 yards per game behind two big games from last year's rushing champion, Murray.
After rushing 29 times for just 47 yards (1.6 yards per carry) through his first three games as an Eagle (he sat out Week 4 because of a hamstring issue), Murray has gone for 192 yards on 42 carries (4.6 yards per carry) in Philadelphia's last two games.
In the passing game, the Eagles have been up-and-down throughout the year. Sam Bradford opened the season with three tough performances before bouncing back with a three-touchdown, zero-interception performance that came in a 23-20 loss in Washington. Last week against the Giants, he threw three picks, but thanks to the team's success on the ground, and on the defensive side of the ball, they were able to coast to a 27-7 win.
Against the 5-0 Panthers, Bradford and the Eagles will need to be sharp in all facets of their offense, but Carolina won't make it easy. The Panthers' defense features a handful of impact players, including two-time Pro Bowl linebacker Luke Kuechly, who tallied 14 tackles against Seattle last week after missing a month of action due to a concussion. In the defensive backfield, Josh Norman has four interceptions in five games, two of which he's returned for touchdowns, and is the highest-rated cornerback in the league according to Pro Football Focus. They also rank defensive tackle Kawann Short the seventh-best player at his position.
As a unit, the Panthers have the fifth-highest interception rate in the league, picking off 3.8 percent of the passes thrown against them. When teams do complete throws against them, Carolina holds them to the fourth-lowest rate of yards per catch, at 10.2.
- Max Rappaport
When The Panthers Have The Ball
For the Eagles, the key to defending the undefeated Panthers this Sunday will be stopping the team's running game, a definite challenge in itself. Currently, Carolina is ranked 29th in the league in passing yards per game because it focuses so heavily on gaining yards on the ground.
The Panthers have the most rushing attempts per game of all NFL teams with an average of 32.8 per game, and those attempts garner results. They put up an average of 132.8 rushing yards each outing, leaving them behind only the Jets and the Seahawks, and their most dangerous weapon, quarterback Cam Newton, is healthy and ready to run.
Through the team's five games, Newton has been the team's No. 2 rusher with 225 yards and three touchdowns. He averages 4.5 yards per touch, ranking him in the top 20 among all NFL players. Last season coming off ankle surgery, he was not as big of a running threat to the Eagles as he will be come Sunday. The team was able to sack him an astounding nine times in 2014, the most the quarterback has been sacked in his career. However, the Philadelphia defense will need to work much harder to bring the 6-5 quarterback down this weekend, especially with the way he has been playing to start the year.
The team's best rusher is running back Jonathan Stewart, who has accumulated 298 yards on the ground and two touchdowns this season. It's clear he will also be a test for the Eagles' defense, but to this point, the team has been successful against the run. The Eagles allow an average of only 94.2 yards each game, and when tested against the Jets, one of the best rushing teams in the league, Philadelphia was dominant. New York only gained 47 yards in the category.
Carolina lost its top receiver before the season began when second-year wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin suffered an ACL injury. Veterans such as Jerricho Cotchery and Ted Ginn, Jr. have picked up some of the slack, but Newton's go-to weapon is tight end Greg Olsen. The two connected for the game-winning touchdown last Sunday in Seattle to complete a stunning comeback.
Another key aspect to watch will be the number of takeaways the Eagles' defense can come away with. The Panthers only have five giveaways in 2015, all which have started with Newton. The quarterback has thrown four picks and lost one fumble. However, the Eagles' defense has 16 takeaways through six games with eight interceptions and eight fumble recoveries. As the team proved against the Giants, turnovers can win games, and as always Philadelphia will aim for at least three in this meeting. Whether or not that goal will be achieved remains to be seen.
Additionally, the Eagles' defense has been successful when it comes to stopping opponents from scoring. They are limiting teams to an average of 18.3 points, which is tied for sixth best in the league. Ironically enough, the Panthers are in sixth in terms of points scored per game. They're racking up an average of 27 each week, showing just how much of a battle it will be between the two teams. If the Eagles can successfully shut down the Panthers' running game though, the matchup will heavily favor the Eagles.
- Julie Bacanskas
Eagles RBs vs. Panthers LBs
In the past few games, the Eagles have successfully been able to run the ball with all three of their backs. After a slow start, both DeMarco Murray and Ryan Mathews have begun to get into a rhythm, with 242 and 245 yards on the season, respectively. Darren Sproles has 111 yards on 28 carries. However, if the three want to continue their progress on the ground, they will need to beat Panthers linebackers Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis, whom Chip Kelly described as "the best pair" the Eagles will face this year.
Davis has 44 tackles, two sacks, a forced fumble and two interceptions through five games this season. Kuechly has only played in two games due to injury, but is a major threat as well. Both have incredible speed and could make it a tough night for the Eagles.
Eagles Safeties vs. TE Greg Olsen
While the Panthers rely mostly on the running game, when they do turn to passing, Newton's top receiver has been tight end Greg Olsen. He is averaging 15.6 yards per catch and has 374 yards on the season, over 100 more yards than the next leading receiver for Carolina. The Eagles' safeties Malcolm Jenkins and Walter Thurmond need to be ready to cover Olsen throughout the entirety of the game.
Up to this point, the two have been one of the most successful and dynamic safety tandems in the league. They've accounted for three interceptions, three forced fumbles and one fumble recovery. If they continue to excel in terms of takeaways, they will put Olsen to the test on Sunday.
WR Jordan Matthews vs. CB Josh Norman
With a number of injuries at the wide receiver position, the Eagles utilized Jordan Matthews on the outside a bit last weekend against the Giants. With Nelson Agholor ruled out and Riley Cooper listed as questionable for Sunday's game, it's possible that Matthews could see more time outside again. If that is the case, he'll be going against cornerback Josh Norman, who currently leads the league in interceptions with four with two of those returned for touchdowns. He has a forced fumble and fumble recovery as well.
However, Matthews will also be looking to mimic his production from last season's Eagles-Panthers game, when he totaled seven receptions for 138 yards and two touchdowns. It will be interesting to watch and see where the wide receiver lines up against the Panthers.
- Julie Bacanskas
Trends To Watch
Birds Fly South
The Eagles have a winning record against all four NFC South teams, including a 6-3 mark against the Panthers. The Eagles have won four of the last five meetings, including last season's 45-21 victory at Lincoln Financial Field.
There's No Rush
The Eagles streak of not allowing an individual 100-yard rusher is now up to 18 games. The Panthers have not had an individual 100-yard rushing performance this season.
The Eagles have put up back-to-back performances of 400 yards of offense. Since the start of the 2013 season, the Eagles have eclipsed 400 yards 24 times in 38 games. The Panthers have gone over 400 yards of offense just six times during that same span.
- Alex Smith