Thursday night rarity: Two of the NFC’s best meet
Thursday night NFL action has become a bit of a punch line. True or not, the perception is that it’s always an ugly matchup like Bills-Jets or 49ers-Rams. But this time, we get perhaps the biggest game of the week, a matchup of 4–1 division leaders trying to keep pace with the Packers in the NFC.
The Panthers and Eagles have risen to the top of their divisions in different ways. Carolina ranks third in the NFL in total defense, while Philadelphia is third in total offense. With a healthy Luke Kuechly, it’s not a big surprise that the Panthers defense is again among the league’s best. The rise of Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz has surprised some after his up-and-down rookie season in 2016, but he has also been helped by a surprisingly strong running game.
It’s too early to talk about this game in terms of seeding and byes for the NFC playoffs, but it’s important for both teams. The Panthers sit a half-game in front of defending NFC champ Atlanta, and at the moment no team in the NFC South has a losing record. The Eagles have looked like the class of the NFC East so far, but their schedule gets quirky: After this game, Philly plays three straight home games before its bye. Then the Eagles hit the road for four of their next five, including two West Coast trips and two division games. In other words, they should stockpile wins while they can.
Philadelphia at Carolina
Kickoff: Thursday, Oct. 12 at 8:25 p.m. ET
TV Channels: CBS/NFL Network
Spread: Panthers -3
Three Things to Watch
1. Cam Newton, pocket passer
Newton took some heat early in the season for missing open receivers and looking generally rusty after offseason shoulder surgery. But in road wins over New England and Detroit the last two weeks, he has proven he can beat you even if you keep him in the pocket and don’t let him beat you with his legs. Newton has back-to-back 300-yard passing games for the first time since the first two games of his career, and last week he had a big day (26-0f-33, 355 yards, 3 TDs, 0 INTs) despite getting little help from the Panthers' run game (28 yards). He’ll likely have to do it again against an Eagles defense that ranks second in the NFL against the run despite ranking 22nd overall. The good news is that he should have receiver Devin Funchess, who has caught seven passes in each of the last two games but just returned to practice on Wednesday after missing two practices this week.
2. Big test for Wentz
It appears Carson Wentz has taken a big step in his development, but he hasn’t exactly faced a murderer’s row of defenses so far. The Panthers are not only by far the best group the Eagles have faced so far, but they are an unfamiliar opponent on a short week. That could be a challenge for a young passer such as Wentz. Not only have the Panthers been tough to run on this season (sixth in the NFL), they are equipped to take away Wentz’s favorite weapon, tight end Zach Ertz. Ertz leads the Eagles in targets (48) and receptions (32), and his 12.1 ypr is solid for a tight end. But the Panthers have allowed just 184 yards to tight ends this season, tied for fourth-best in the NFL, and nearly half of those yards came from Rob Gronkowski of the Patriots. If Wentz is going to carry Philadelphia to a win with his arm, he’ll likely have to look elsewhere.
3. Injury impact on a short week
As was noted above, the Panthers should have Funchess available despite two missed practices this week, but will his knee allow him to play at top speed? With Newton’s favorite target, tight end Greg Olsen, already out of the lineup, Funchess is a huge piece of the Panthers’ passing game. For the Eagles, offensive tackle Lane Johnson will miss the game with a concussion, and running back Wendell Smallwood is a game-time decision due to a knee injury. Defensively, the news is better as starting defensive tackle Fletcher Cox is expected to return (game-time decision) after missing two games with a calf injury. Defensive end Chris Long was limited in practice this week with a foot injury, but safeties Jaylen Watkins and Corey Graham have recovered enough from hamstring injuries to practice in full.
The Panthers aren’t running the ball as well as they did when they went 15–1 in 2016, but they have rediscovered how good they can be when their stars — Cam Newton on offense and Luke Kuechly on defense — are healthy. Last season, Newton’s shoulder obviously bothered him, and Carolina lost four of six after Kuechly’s season was ended by a concussion. Now that both appear to be on top of their games, it’s tough to bet against the Panthers at home on a short week.