Are the Eagles the team to beat in NFC? 3 things we saw against the Panthers

In a game probably more ancitipated for its offensive potential, the Eagles used a stout and dynamic defense to force three Cam Newton interceptions and pull out a hard-fought 28-23 win in Week 6 Thursday night.

With under five minutes to go and the Panthers trailing by five, Derek Barnett’s first career sack helped set up a fourth and one for all the marbles at midfield. A quick out to Christian McCaffery kept the drive alive but a Jalen Mills pick on a misthrown deep ball (forced by a stellar pass rush) got Philly the ball back. However a three-and-out gave the Panthers one last shot just inside the two-minute warning. After two more near interceptions the Eagles walked off the field triumphant when a Newton fourth down pass hit the turf.

The win comes in spite of one of the most lop-sided officiating in recent memory, as the Eagles saw flags 10 times for 126 yards while Carolina was penalized one time for one yard.

Regardless, Philly moves to 5-1 and becomes the team to beat in the NFC, with a mini-bye week ahead before they next play on Monday Night in 11 days. Here are three things we saw in the thrilling victory:

Solid front seven

The Eagles run defense has not allowed more than 35 yards to any running back not named Kareem Hunt. On Thursday the group up front, led by Jordan Hicks and Timmy Jernigan held Panthers not named Newton to eight yards on 14 rushes on the ground. However, Newton ran for accumulate 71 yards. However, Philly’s handling of the called run plays forced Carolina to man a one-dimentional offense. The Eagles pass rush did a good job of making the big Panthers signal-caller get rid of the ball quickly. A fundamentally sound tackling performance did the rest, handling Carolina’s offense better than most defensive units have.

After a punishing Fletcher Cox (who also had a sack) pass-rush forced a defender into Newton, a wobbling tipped pass fell into Rasul Douglas’ arms at the 12-yardline. Hard-nosed football followed, as three LeGarrette Blount runs and a fourth-and-one sneak by Wentz set up a one-yard touchdown pass to Zach Ertz to tie the game at 10-all.

A second, incredible interception came to start the third, as a failed and bobbled screen pass fell into the arms of diving Eagles’ cornerback Patrick Robinson. With yet another short field, Wentz hooked up with Ertz a second time for six points on a 17-yard slant. Philly led 18-10 after a Blount two-point conversion.

Protect Wentz

A combination of frequent exotic blitzes from Ron Rivera with a Lane Johnson-less Eagles offensive line made it a long day for Wentz, who was pressured all night, sacked three times and rarely had the kind of time he is used to in the pocket. In addition to the opening drive forced fumble, a key Panthers sack came in the second quarter, immediately following a ill-timed Doug Pederson time out that irradicated a first down pass. Wentz was thrown to the ground with the Birds’ back to their end zone forcing a punt a play later. On the ensuing Carolina drive, Newton found his legs and the end zone to put his squad ahead 10-3.

Wentz got his best protection during the first play of the fourth quarter, as Wentz was able to take an extra second before finding Nelson Agholor through the middle on a 24-yard pass, his fourth touchdown of the year, to extend the Philly lead to 28-16. In all, Wentz stepped up when needed, though not as accurate as usual (16-for-30) he threw for three scores and 222 yards.

Still making mistakes

A promising drive came to a screeching halt to open things, as Wentz was strip sacked by Julius Peppers to waste two first downs. But a Nigel Bradham tipped third down pass forced a punt and got Philly another chance. After 11 plays Philly settled for an early 3-0 lead on a 50-yard Jake Elliott field goal.

In the second half a very costly, and unneccesary pass interference call on Jalen Mills — his second of the game — erased a Rodney McLeod interception and put the Panthers close to their end zone. An excellent Nigel Bradham tackle on a McCaffery screen pass at the three yard line held Carolina to a field goal, making it an 18-13 game.

Philly answered with Elliott’s second field goal from 48-yards (his 10th in a row), and minutes later Gano added his third. In the fourth with the Panthers looking to close a 12-point gap, a potential delay of game call on third down turned into a Panthers first down on a late hit on Newton, the Philly defenders clearly not notcing the referee’s whistles. A few plays later Newton connected with McCaffery in the end zone, cutting the lead to five points.

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