After Thursday's game between the Panthers and the Eagles, Carolina head coach Ron Rivera said his team couldn't settle for field goals and expect to beat good teams. The Panthers kicked three field goals and only scored two touchdowns, losing 28-23.
Panthers fans and media members focused on Rivera's message. I focused on the way he addressed the Eagles as a good team.
Rivera is right. The Eagles are a good team.
They are 5-1, tied for the best record in the NFL. The Eagles have passed every test that has come their way. The Eagles are the only team in the league to play four road games so far. They are 3-1 in those contests. The Eagles have played on the West Coast. They have played on the road on a short week. There have been injuries to deal with on offense, defense, and special teams. One of the wins was a comeback that involved a last-second field goal.
Simply put, this team is finding a way to win games.
The game at Carolina felt like one that last year's team would have lost. The Eagles came up big at crucial moments. Kenjon Barner muffed a punt, but Patrick Robinson was there to dive on the ball. Fletcher Cox drove his blocker into Cam Newton as the quarterback tried to get a pass off. The ball went high in the air and rookie Rasul Douglas picked it off. The Eagles' offense turned that into a touchdown. Robinson picked off a pass that Jonathan Stewart bobbled in the second half. That led to another touchdown. Doug Pederson decided to go for two after the illegal formation penalty and the Eagles converted, stretching the lead to 18-10. That allowed them to play with the lead for the rest of the game.
There have been plenty of games in the past when the Eagles just missed those gift interceptions. There are games where they came up with them, but then didn't capitalize, either having to settle for a field goal or punt the ball away. Those 15 points on a short field were critical for the Eagles because they were going up against a stout Carolina defense.
Carson Wentz has been the star of the Eagles' 2017 season, but the big guys up front were the reason the Eagles won on Thursday. The defensive line pressured Newton all night long and caused him to struggle quite a bit. He threw 52 passes and only finished with 239 yards. The Eagles' offensive line opened enough holes so that the team could run for 101 yards. They did a good job against the Panthers' defensive line in pass protection. Carolina had to blitz a lot to get hits on Wentz. The blitz was effective, but Wentz had a clean pocket on key throws and finished the game with three touchdown passes.
Cox had a monster game in his return to the field after missing some time with an injury. The stat sheet won't show all that much but watch the game tape and you'll see Cox pushing the pocket, play after play after play. Newton had been incredibly efficient in recent weeks, but that wasn't the case against the Eagles. Cox and his teammates got a lot of hits on Newton and kept the pocket very messy. Quarterbacks don't like bodies around them. They want to be able to step into throws or move around comfortably. The Eagles were constantly around Newton and his accuracy was an issue, especially when he tried to throw downfield.
Newton focused on getting the ball out quickly when he could. The Eagles did a terrific job of tackling, which limited yards after the catch. Christian McCaffrey, the rookie runner/receiver with special potential, finished with 10 catches but gained only 56 yards. He caught the ball and was tackled quickly on almost every play. That's good defense. Nigel Bradham and Mychal Kendricks combined for 15 solo tackles, many of them coming near the line of scrimmage.
The Eagles' defensive line didn't just get after the passer. The linemen were dominant against the run once again. Carolina running backs finished with 14 carries for just 9 yards. That's crazy. The Eagles attacked off the snap and seemed to have multiple defenders in the backfield on every run play. Newton did run for 71 yards and a touchdown. He is still an amazing playmaker when he gets out in space.
Safety Rodney McLeod was one of the hidden heroes of the game. He was the deep safety and kept things in front of him which let the Eagles be aggressive at the line of scrimmage. McLeod would have had an interception, but a ticky-tack interference call on cornerback Jalen Mills wiped out the pick. McLeod blitzed a few times. On two of them, he disguised it well and got real pressure on Newton. Both of those forced incompletions. Carolina's longest play was 20 yards. McLeod did his part in forcing Carolina to be methodical and need more plays to move the ball.
Wentz didn't post big numbers, but played well. The Carolina blitz did affect him. There were some high throws and quick decisions. Wentz made his passes count. He only completed 16 for the game, but three of those were for touchdowns.
The Panthers did a solid job on Zach Ertz, limiting him to just two catches. Unfortunately for them, both were for touchdowns. It is great to see Ertz becoming more of a red zone weapon. He is such a talented pass catcher that you want to target him in the end zone.
Nelson Agholor and Alshon Jeffery each caught four passes, which led the team. Both guys were open on a critical third-down play late in the game. Wentz threw to Ertz and the ball fell incomplete. That was the one play Wentz really wanted another chance at. Agholor was wide open and Wentz just never saw him. That could have sealed the game a bit earlier.
There were a few moments the team would like to have back. Derek Barnett ran into Newton just after the whistle blew and that turned a third-and-15 situation into a first down and kept a touchdown drive alive. Halapoulivaati Vaitai got the start at right tackle. He missed a block on Julius Peppers and that led to a strip-sack which killed a promising drive. Douglas dropped an interception late in the game. There was poor coverage of a punt that helped set up a scoring drive.
The Eagles weren't perfect, but they made up for the mistakes by playing well overall and coming up with some big plays in key moments. The game had a playoff vibe to it. Both teams were very physical and played like there was something on the line. Both teams really wanted to win this game.
The Eagles showed they could beat a good team on the road and that win has them at 5-1 and sitting atop the entire NFC. There is still a long way to go in this season, but the Eagles look like a real contender.