CHARLOTTE, N.C. – They didn’t want to talk about it until they got through Thursday’s messy encounter, but this is the weekend the Eagles dreamed of, the reward they sought.
They can watch Sunday and Monday’s NFL action with their feet up. Twenty-six teams will take the field. Only one, unbeaten Kansas City, which is hosting Pittsburgh, has a chance to enter next week with a better record than the Eagles.
The Birds are 5-1. They got Fletcher Cox back Thursday, and he dominated against the best team the Eagles have beaten. Four of their five victories have come within the NFC. The best any of their NFC East foes can do this weekend is get back within a game of them. On tap are three home games in a row, for a team that played four of its first six on the road. Then the bye week.
This is a rare opportunity, about as good a setup as a team coming off a 7-9 season could hope to find, six games into a new year, which is looking more like a new era.
“It’s crucial, man, just having that time. Knowing that we have some days where guys can get in the training room, get healthy,” running back and returner Kenjon Barner said. “This time is going to be big for us, as a team.”
Safety Rodney McLeod, who missed a game last month with a hamstring strain, said: “We got a lot of guys banged up, myself included.”
At one point Thursday evening, linebackers were dropping all over the place – Nigel Bradham jammed his neck and missed some snaps after Jordan Hicks went down with an ankle injury, putting Joe Walker and Najee Goode on the field. Mychal Kendricks, who often doesn’t get the snaps he feels he deserves, ended up playing 55 of them, the most he has registered since Jim Schwartz arrived. The Carolina statisticians credited Kendricks with 10 solo tackles and five more on which he assisted. Two more tackles during his 11 special-teams snaps.
“I’m tired,” Kendricks said. “I want to go home and reset a little bit.”
Kendricks said he didn’t know how much time off the team would get before reconvening: “That part doesn’t matter; just to be able to relax a little bit is good, you know? Get the body right again and get ready for this long run.”
Watching games Sunday, listening to the talking heads discuss where the 5-1 Eagles fit in the conference championship contender picture? “It’s going to be sweet,” Kendricks said.
Eagles coach Doug Pederson said the team will really only get the weekend off before it starts looking toward the Oct. 23 Monday night matchup with the visiting Washington Redskins. This is a thrilling time to be an Eagle; though healing is important, it’s unlikely anybody was looking for a real vacation just yet.
“Really just give them the weekend off and let them rest and really think about the first six weeks,” Pederson said Friday. “Get away from the coaches and just treat it as a mini-bye a little bit. Then get back in here on Monday/Tuesday, and get focused again on the task at hand. We’ve got three really good, exciting games coming up before our official bye, all at home.”
Pederson said he’ll wait until Washington plays the visiting San Francisco 49ers Sunday before starting prep for the next game.
“I’m also going to give the coaches some time, too, to spend the weekend with their families and rejuvenate and get ready for next week,” he said.
*All three Carolina sacks came in the first 17 minutes. Then the Eagles adjusted to pick up the blitz.
*I was watching Carolina safety Mike Adams throw LeGarrette Blount down long after the whistle – something that was actually penalized when the Eagles did it to Cam Newton – so I didn’t see the Brandon Brooks collision with Luke Kuechly that gave the Panthers’ middle linebacker his third career concussion. Looked like he took Brooks’ massive forearm to the side of his head. Fans argued on Twitter whether the Birds’ loss of Jordan Hicks to an ankle injury was a bigger deal than Kuechly going out. I’m going to have to side with the Panthers’ fans there. As good as Hicks is – and he’s very good – Kuechly really is what makes Carolina’s defense work. Brooks said afterward: “Obviously, you don’t want to see anybody get hurt with a concussion, but it’s football, man. You know?”
*That Brandon Graham-Fletcher Cox sack just before the half pushed the Panthers out of field goal range, and a Nigel Bradham tackle on a Newton scramble, plus two incompletions, kept them there.
*The only accepted Carolina penalty of the game was the one that set up the Eagles’ two-point conversion. I’m not big on refereeing conspiracy theories, but Pete Morelli’s crew has called 40 penalties on the Eagles for 396 yards the last four Birds games they’ve worked, vs. eight for 74 against the opponents in those games. This is odd. As Doug Pederson noted in his Friday news conference, most of the penalties called on the Eagles Thursday were legit. But the lack of flags on an aggressive Carolina defense was pretty astonishing.
*Lots of key moments in the game, but a big one for me was the sequence that began with Carolina in first and goal from the Eagles’ 5, with the Birds up 18-10 early in the third quarter. First, Rasul Douglas outfought Kelvin Benjamin and knocked away a pass in the end zone. Then, Newton had plenty of time to find a receiver but the coverage was tight and Newton threw a pass tight end Ed Dickson couldn’t get to, Dickson covered by Malcolm Jenkins. Finally,. Newton dumped off to Christian McCaffrey, who was stopped at the 3 by Bradham. The Panthers had to settle for a field goal, and they never again drew even or led.
*Nelson Agholor’s fourth touchdown catch in six 2017 games – more than he managed his first two seasons, combined – came when he faked a cut outside and did to Carolina linebacker Shaq Thompson what Agholor had done to Cardinals safety Budda Baker the week before. “Repetition and being on page and great communication with Carson [Wentz],” Agholor said afterward. “We talk about where we’re going to be on film … We see the same thing … That was definitely fun. You catch one, you see that much green grass, you don’t know how fast you want run – get in the end zone.”
That Caleb Sturgis’ injury would open the door for such an amazing performance by Jake Elliott? The guy the Eagles signed from Cincinnati’s practice squad has now made 10 field goals in a row, seven of them from 45 yards or longer.
Cam Newton rushed 11 times for 71 yards, and the Panthers got 8 more on an end-around by Curtis Samuel. Their actual running backs carried 13 times for 1 yard.
Rodney McLeod made a beautiful play, reading a long third-quarter throw to Samuel, ranging over, timing his leap and bringing down the underthrown pass. Except, Jalen Mills, who was in tight coverage, felt the need to grab Samuel, just as McLeod was catching the ball, behind them. No interception. Pass interference.
Mills later redeemed himself by intercepting Newton with three minutes and six seconds remaining.
“I told him I should have gotten him back, I should have gotten a flag [wiping out Mills’ pick],” McLeod said. “I actually rushed the passer on that; I should have hit Cam in the head. But, nah. I’m going to tease him for a good week, then I’m going to let it go.”