This Monday night showdown offers a plethora of storylines. The Eagles are looking to move forward without key leaders on both offense and defense. The Panthers are 3-5-1 through nine games, but the team's playoff chances are still remarkably alive after a very hot-and-cold first half of the year.
In their five losses this season, Carolina has lost by an average of 17.8 points per game, but they beat the NFC North-best Detroit Lions 24-7 in Week 2. However, the Panthers have not won a game in over a month with their last win coming on October 5 against the Bears.
Quarterback Cam Newton has kept the offense steady and has thrown only five interceptions this season, but the Panthers rank in the bottom quarter in points scored this year. Injuries along the offensive line have hampered the run game putting even more pressure on Newton's shoulders.
On the defensive side of the ball, Carolina has taken a few steps back from last season's full-throttle effort. The Panthers were a top-10 team in 2013 in terms of explosive plays allowed and this year are near the bottom of the league. They are still proficient at taking the ball away, something the Eagles must be on guard for, as the Panthers have nine interceptions and seven fumble recoveries for the season.
Last Time They Met
November 26, 2012 – Panthers 30, Eagles 22
The last time the Eagles and Panthers met during the regular season also happened to be a Monday Night affair at Lincoln Financial Field. This one didn't turn out so well for the Eagles, though. A few fourth-quarter defensive breakdowns doomed the home team on the way to their seventh consecutive loss. In Nick Foles' second career start, the star for the Eagles was running back Bryce Brown, who sprinted to 178 yards rushing and two touchdowns on 19 carries. But a 22-21 lead entering the final stanza evaporated thanks to a few blown coverages and Cam Newton's 306-yard passing night (to go with 52 yards rushing) proved to be enough, though the Panthers would finish the season 7-9.
When The Eagles Have The Ball
Ron Rivera and Sean McDermott's defense is allowing 26.2 points per game, 25th in the NFL, and has allowed at least 24 points to six of its last seven foes. With the Eagles averaging 29.3 points per game through eight games this season, fourth-best in the league, Eagles fans hope for a prolific scoring effort Monday night.
If the Eagles' attack starts on the ground, the Panthers' defense is allowing 131.9 rush yards per game, 26th in the league, as well as 4.8 yards per attempt and 11 rushing touchdowns through nine games. In Week 9, LeSean McCoy, Darren Sproles and Chris Polk combined for nearly 200 yards and balanced the Eagles' offensive attack in the second half. If the Eagles take the same approach from the jump Monday, the offense can establish the run early with McCoy, who is definitively in a groove midway through the year, and then let Polk run through tired defenders later in the game.
When the Eagles take to the air, quarterback Mark Sanchez faces the 12th-best team in the NFL at intercepting opposing quarterbacks, with nine on the season. The Panthers' pass defense has also allowed a flurry of touchdowns this season, and if Sanchez's passes against Houston were any indication, his accuracy hasn't fallen off at all from his finest days in New York. If the veteran can keep calm in the pocket against a good pass rush, he should be able to pick apart the Panthers' pass defense and find wide receiver Jeremy Maclin all night long. Maclin has been unfazed by opposing defenses this season, and while the Panthers sport a fairly talented secondary, it's fair to expect more of the same from Maclin.
The biggest key to beating Carolina on offense? Simply moving the chains. Head coach Chip Kelly emphasized how important it was that the Eagles were able to pick up first downs consistently in the win over Houston, piling up 30. The Panthers allow 22.3 first downs per game, fifth-worst in the league. With an offense predicated on moving the ball downfield, and quickly, the Eagles need to execute on first and second down to keep third downs manageable, or even non-existent. The Eagles converted 5 of 8 third downs of 6 yards or more against the Texans, but the easier way is getting into short-yardage situations. From there, it's all about execution.
When The Panthers Have The Ball
The Panthers' offense is an extremely conservative unit. When Carolina has the ball, Bill Davis' defense should have one thing on its mind: don't beat yourself.
The former Auburn standout is leading a struggling offense into Lincoln Financial Field on Monday night, averaging just 19.7 points per game, 25th in the NFL. Newton himself has only thrown eight touchdown passes in his eight starts this season, a far cry from the 24-touchdown pace he played at last year. While he - and, for one game, Derek Anderson - avoided throwing many interceptions thus far, the Panthers rank in the bottom half of the league in nearly every other passing-related statistic. The Eagles' secondary is coming off an impressive effort against Texans quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick, in which the defense limited the veteran passer to just 182 yards through the air. If cornerbacks Cary Williams and Bradley Fletcher keep the Panthers' wide receivers in front of them Monday night, the result should mirror the Eagles' Week 9 victory over Houston.
It doesn't get much better when Carolina turns to the ground game. The Panthers average just 94.7 yards per game on the ground, seventh-worst in the league. They average 3.7 yards per attempt, and don't have a single rusher with over 300 yards on the ground. Running back Jonathan Stewart missed three games with an injury, which has hampered his cumulative statistics, but the veteran is still averaging fewer than 50 yards per game. The Eagles held Texans running back Arian Foster, who entered Week 9 as the second-highest rusher in the league, to just 56 yards on 15 attempts.
Carolina is entering its matchup with the Eagles on a downward trajectory. Their last two games have been their two worst offensive outings of the season, averaging just 9.5 points and 248.5 yards per game in losses to the Seahawks and Saints. The offense was stagnant at best, but they have had 10 days to prepare for this primetime showdown.
The focal points of the pass attack are rookie wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin and veteran tight end Greg Olsen. When Newton is able to find a rhythm in the passing game, these two are why. Benjamin enters Week 10 with 589 yards and five touchdowns, averaging 14.7 yards per catch. Olsen, a reliable target for years in Chicago and now Carolina, has 539 yards and five touchdowns of his own. Olsen has been one of the league's most prolific tight ends this season as he's in the top five among his position group in catches, receiving yards and touchdowns. The loss of DeMeco Ryans at inside linebacker could hurt the Eagles in defending Olsen, but linebackers Emmanuel Acho and Casey Matthews seem ready to step up to the plate.
Players To Watch
QB Mark Sanchez
Everyone who watches this game will want to know how the Eagles' starting quarterback performs. It is Mark Sanchez's first start since December 30, 2012. Head coach Chip Kelly and Sanchez's teammates have been effusive with their praise of the quarterback. Sanchez came on in relief of Nick Foles and threw for 202 yards and a pair of touchdowns in the win over Houston. He guided the Eagles to 24 total points as the team was a perfect 3 of 3 in the red zone. The Panthers have the league's 17th-best pass defense entering this week, but are 31st on third down. Something to keep an eye on with Sanchez is how his athleticism could help the run game. If the Panthers have to account for Sanchez in the zone read, there could be more space for LeSean McCoy. The Panthers rank 25th in rushing yards per attempt.
WR Kelvin Benjamin
The first-round pick, Kelvin Benjamin, is a vertical threat who has caught 40 receptions for 589 yards and five touchdowns this season. He ranks in the top three among rookies in each of those categories. The NFL's Offensive Rookie of the Month for September, Benjamin was the first rookie in the past decade to have a touchdown of 25 yards in three of a team's first four games. Benjamin is 6-foot-5, 240 pounds and is excellent at catching the ball at the jump point. Benjamin is an example of why the Eagles prefer taller cornerbacks.
LBs Emmanuel Acho and Casey Matthews
Since Emmanuel Acho and Casey Matthews will share the bulk of the MIKE linebacker duties it only made sense to pair them together. Acho and Matthews have played well in the absence of Mychal Kendricks, who was out for four games with a calf injury. The difference will be that Acho and Matthews will have to communicate the calls and align the defensive front. The Panthers are expected to get two starting offensive linemen back this week in left guard Amini Silatolu and left tackle Byron Bell. The Panthers' numbers in the run game have not been impressive, but they still present a formidable duo with Jonathan Stewart and DeAngelo Williams. And don't forget about Cam Newton's ability to run with the ball as well.
KR/PR Philly Brown
Corey "Philly" Brown is a native of Springfield, Pa. and the rookie out of Ohio State has provided a spark in the return game for the Panthers. Brown is averaging 11.4 yards per punt return and scored on a 79-yard return to end an NFL-worst streak of 164 straight games without a punt return score. The Eagles have been sensational in punt return coverage allowing just 7.1 yards per return, the eighth-best mark in the league and have returned two blocked punts for scores.
RB LeSean McCoy vs. Panthers LB Luke Kuechly
LeSean McCoy has gained at least 80 yards rushing in four straight games. It's the first time he's done that in his career. He didn't do that in 2011 when he led the league in touchdowns. Nor did he do that last year when he set the franchise rushing record and led the league in rushing yards. Plus, McCoy welcomes back All-Pro guard Evan Mathis one week after center Jason Kelce's return. Kuechly is the reigning AP Defensive Player of the Year one season after being named the AP Defensive Rookie of the Year. He is one of just eight players in NFL history to earn both awards. Kuechly is smart and instinctive. He is a tackling machine with 99 on the season. He's also responsible for 10 total turnovers during his short career.
LB Mychal Kendricks vs. QB Cam Newton
Only one quarterback in NFL history has more combined passing yards and rushing yards than Carolina's Cam Newton in his first 56 games and that's Detroit's Matthew Stafford. Newton is the first player in NFL history to have 10,000 passing yards and 2,000 rushing yards in his first four seasons. Even though he is currently on pace for the fewest rushing yards of his career, Newton did post 107 yards on the ground, the second-highest total of his career, in the Panthers' first-ever tie against Cincinnati. Kendricks has the speed and playmaking ability to contain Newton. Discipline will be the key to keeping him in the pocket, but even if he remains in the pocket he has one of the strongest arms in the league. After missing four games with a calf injury earlier this season, Kendricks is healthy and the Eagles are not changing his role in light of DeMeco Ryans' injury so he can fly around the field.
WR Jeremy Maclin vs. CB Antoine Cason
The NFC Offensive Player of the Week, Jeremy Maclin, is the NFL's first player with back-to-back games of 150 yards receiving and two touchdowns since Miles Austin did it in 2009. Maclin is dangerous because he's not a one-trick pony. He can hurt teams short, intermediate and deep. The 6-foot-1, 195-pound Antoine Cason leads the Panthers' secondary with 46 tackles. He also has two interceptions, one he returned 81 yards for a touchdown. Of the receivers in franchise history with 250 or more receptions, Maclin is first in receptions per game and second in receiving yards per games.
DE Fletcher Cox vs. G Amini Silatolu
The Panthers have lost three straight games and have not had starting left guard Amini Silatolu for those three contests due to a calf injury. Silatolu is on track to return this week. The Panthers have managed just 46 points in the last three games after amassing 68 in the two prior to Silatolu's absence. Defensive end Fletcher Cox has had a very good season. He has 30 tackles, seven quarterback hurries, two fumble recoveries, one forced fumble and a touchdown. The Panthers have had five giveaways in their last three games compared to seven in the first six games. Coincidence?