The Eagles have warred against some formidable quarterbacks this season. All five (Kirk Cousins, Alex Smith, Eli Manning, Philip Rivers, and Carson Palmer) have a combined 16 Pro Bowl appearances on their résumés. But what separates Cam Newton from this prominent bunch is that he's the only one with an MVP trophy which he won back in 2015.
That season, Newton carried the Panthers to a 15-1 regular-season record and a trip to the Super Bowl. After a down year plagued with nagging injuries in 2016, including shoulder surgery this past offseason, Newton looks like his former self in 2017. In the past two games, he lit up the Patriots and Lions for a combined 671 passing yards, six passing touchdowns, and one rushing touchdown against just one interception. His play is a big reason why the Panthers sit at 4-1 this season.
"He's definitely got a lot better than what he was last year," linebacker Nigel Bradham said. "I think you've seen that too in the past two games. He's been standing in the pocket a little bit more these last two games as well, just completing passes and getting that ball downfield."
Newton's 68.3 completion percentage currently ranks fourth in the NFL. That mark is by far the highest in Newton's seven-year career. Add that Newton is typically among the top quarterbacks in rushing yards and rushing touchdowns, and he becomes a difficult signal-caller to contain. At 6-5, 245 pounds, he's far from easy to bring down in the open field.
"You definitely have to stay with your man with a quarterback like this," cornerback Patrick Robinson said. "He's a big strong guy. He could be getting tackled then out of nowhere he'll just break it and rifle it 60 yards down the field so you definitely have to plaster him."
Defensive tackle Tim Jernigan has yet to play against Newton and the Panthers but knows the kind of threat the physical quarterback poses for defenses.
"It's going to be a great game. I think he's a phenomenal player. He's physically gifted. He's smart and even more than that he has a pretty good offensive line in front of him," Jernigan said. "We'll have our work cut out for us."
At the other end of the spectrum, safety Malcolm Jenkins has played Newton six times over his career. He's been able to pick off Newton twice. When asked whether he changes his strategy in tackling Newton, Jenkins didn't back down. It's what he's "paid to do."
"When a quarterback can run the ball that makes you account for all 11 defenders. So that brings your deep safeties involved as well," Jenkins said. "They do so many different things that you have to be disciplined in where you put your eyes, where you put your gaps, and always knowing who's responsible for the quarterback."
Like Carson Wentz, Newton is making his opponents pay on third down. He has a superior knack for extending plays and then punishing teams with a deep throw or a backbreaking first-down run. Similarly, Newton and Wentz are running the two top offenses on third-down percentage and time of possession.
Thursday night's game could come down to which team makes the fewest amount of mistakes. Against the Eagles, Newton has a history of giving the ball away. The Eagles have intercepted Newton six times and forced a fumble in the last two meetings. If the Eagles can get some pressure on Newton, they could strengthen their chances of pulling one out on the road on a short week.
"He's going to make a couple plays probably but you can't allow it to slow you down," said defensive end Chris Long. "You play your keys. You do your job within the defense but you don't play slow."