The Philadelphia Eagles have emerged as a real contender in the NFC, improving to 5-1 after a 28-23 win over the Carolina Panthers. Carson Wentz threw for three touchdowns, and Cam Newton tossed three interceptions as the Panthers fell to 4-2.
Newton and the Panthers appeared to have the upper hand in the first half, taking a 10-3 lead while the defense endlessly tormented Wentz. However, Luke Kuechly left late in the second quarter with a concussion, and that seemingly changed the game. Wentz tied things up after Fletcher Cox caused an interception by tipping Newton’s pass at the line of scrimmage.
In the second half, the Eagles pulled away while the Panthers offense withered and died. With no running game to speak of, Newton was forcing throws and trying to make things happen by himself. Carolina was reduced to settling for field goals, rarely a winning strategy when you’re playing from behind.
Philly extended the lead to double digits, but Newton tried his hardest to get the Panthers back in it. He nearly scored on a beautiful dive toward the goal line but was ruled out at the 1-yard line. One play later, Newton hit Christian McCaffrey for a touchdown to make it a 28-23 game.
The Panthers threatened to make it a real game late, but a hideous pass by Newton got intercepted for his third pick of the night, all but ending Carolina’s comeback attempt. A two-minute drill attempt went nowhere, and the Eagles kneeled out the clock with Carolina out of timeouts.
Four things we learned
1. The Panthers run game is broken
Carolina drafted a running back at No. 8 overall and still doesn’t have a running game. That’s a problem. Jonathan Stewart was a complete disaster, getting -4 yards on eight carries and letting a pass bounce off his hands for an interception. McCaffrey made some good plays down the stretch, finishing with 10 catches for 56 yards and a touchdown, but was largely invisible in the first three quarters. Newton led the team with 71 rushing yards, and as good as he is on the ground, you never want your quarterback being the leading rusher.
Head coach Ron Rivera and offensive coordinator Mike Shula clearly favor a slow, ground-and-pound game, but they really don’t have the personnel to fit that style. It’s time for them to evolve and figure out how to use unique playmakers like Newton, McCaffrey, and Curtis Samuel more effectively.
2. Luke Kuechly was dearly missed
It’s no coincidence that this game turned when Kuechly left with a concussion. The Panthers defense had its way for most of the first half, but his absence leaves a gaping hole in the middle of the field. With him out, the Eagles were able to string together enough scoring drives to keep the lead for most of the second half.
What happens next for Kuechly is uncertain. He has a long, scary concussion history, with three diagnosed in the past three years alone. The last concussion cost him six games in 2016. If he’s forced to miss multiple games again, the Panthers defense is suddenly in real trouble.
3. Carson Wentz endured
Wentz faced a stiff challenge from the Panthers defense, and for the most part he passed the test. He was far from perfect, but he made the big plays when needed to and rarely lost his composure. Wentz finished the game with 222 yards and three touchdowns on 16-of-30 passing, throwing two scores to Zach Ertz and spraying key passes to Alshon Jeffery and Nelson Agholor.
The Eagles are 5-1 partly thanks to Wentz, who still has flaws to his game but has taken a big step forward in his second season. This team looks like the real deal and is now the odds-on favorite to win the NFC East.
4. Lane Johnson’s absence made a difference again
Wentz’ biggest struggles during his rookie season came when right tackle Lane Johnson missed 10 games with a suspension. Johnson was ruled out of Thursday night’s game with a concussion, and the Panthers defense immediately took advantage, with Julius Peppers getting the 150th sack of his career. While Wentz settled down, he faced relentless pressure from the right side for most of the night. The Eagles will certainly hope that Johnson can return next week and stabilize the offensive line.