WHEN THE EAGLES HAVE THE BALL
After perhaps the best game of his career, Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz will be challenged Thursday on the road during a short week against the NFL’s third-ranked defense. He will also play without right tackle Lane Johnson, who is out with a concussion. Halapoulivaati Vaitai will start in Johnson’s place and must block Julius Peppers, one of the top pass rushers in NFL history who already has 5 1/2 sacks this season. The Panthers are limiting opponents to an average of 194.2 passing yards per game, well below the 259 passing yards per game the Eagles average. The pressure comes from more than Peppers. Kawann Short and Star Lotuelei form perhaps the NFL’s best defensive tackle combination, and Charles Johnson and Mario Addison can both challenge on the edge. The Eagles will could find success against a secondary that is missing starting safety Kurt Coleman, a former Eagle, and has starting cornerback Daryl Worley (from Penn Charter) fighting an ankle injury. Alshon Jeffrey hasn’t yet produced prolific numbers, but this game presents an opportunity for him to show why he’s the Eagles’ No. 1 wide receiver. After their success with the deep ball last week, the Panthers must respect the Eagles’ vertical passing game.
Carolina’s defense relies on the NFL’s best linebacker group, a trio adept against both the pass and run. Middle linebacker Luke Kuechly is a tackling machine who has made four Pro Bowls and has been defensive player of the year. Thomas Davis is one of the NFL’s respected linebackers, and Shaq Thompson is emerging as one of the most athletic players at his position.
The Eagles might play another week without running back Wendell Smallwood, who is questionable with a knee injury. LeGarrette Blount, Corey Clement, and Kenjon Barner all received work on Sunday should be utilized again on Thursday. It might be tougher against the NFL’s seventh-ranked rushing defense. Coach Doug Pederson wants balance, but teams have struggled to move the ball against Carolina, They’re limiting opponents to 38.1 percent on third downs. But the Eagles are the best third-down offense in the NFL with a 53.4 percent conversion rate.
WHEN THE PANTHERS HAVE THE BALL
Carolina’s offense is built around Cam Newton, a former league MVP who is one of the best dual-threat quarterbacks in NFL history. Newton has been hot the last two weeks with a combined 671 passing yards while completing 77 percent of his passes for six touchdowns and one interception. He has also rushed for a score, although Newton’s rushing numbers are down this season. He averages 2.4 fewer carries per game than his 2015 MVP season. That doesn’t deter teams from being worried about his feet, and the Eagles pass rushers must make sure to contain Newton in the pocket. Defensive tackle Fletcher Cox is questionable with a calf injury. If he can return after missing two games, it will be a boost for the defensive line. The defensive line has other injuries. Beau Allen (foot), Chris Long (foot), and Destiny Vaeao (wrist) are all questionable. Edge rushers Vinny Curry and Brandon Graham will be counted on to apply pressure against Panthers tackles Matt Kalil and Daryl Williams.
If the Eagles want to spy Newton, linebackers Jordan Hicks or Mychal Kendricks could fill that role. But the Eagles also must be aware of running back Christian McCaffrey, a versatile offensive option who the Panthers use similarly to the way the Eagles used Darren Sproles. Running back Jonathan Stewart is a tough runner, although he’s averaging only 3.3 yards per carry. That’s a good matchup for the Eagles, who are second in the NFL in rush defense. McCaffrey also leads the Panthers with 27 receptions. Outside receivers Devin Funchess and Kelvin Benjamin are big, physical pass catchers who can overpower cornerbacks. Rookie Rasul Douglas, who is 6-foot-2, needs to play to his size against those receivers. The Panthers are missing standout tight end Greg Olsen, but backup Ed Dickson had 175 receiving yards in his place last week. Safety Malcolm Jenkins has been used in a variety of defensive roles this season and could see time on Dickson and McCaffrey. The Panthers trail only the Eagles in third-down offense, converting 50 percent of their attempts.
Although Thursday games usually favor the home team, that hasn’t been the case this season. The road teams are 4-1 on Thursdays this season, showing that teams are getting more adept at traveling on short weeks. The only home team to win on a Thursday this season was Green Bay in Week 4. The Eagles are 6-3 all-time in Thursday road games. Their last Thursday road game was 2015, when they lost to Detroit on Thanksgiving.
Zach Berman: Panthers 24, Eagles 23
Jeff McLane: Panthers 27, Eagles 20
Les Bowen: Panthers 28, Eagles 26
Paul Domowitch: Panthers 27, Eagles 20