CHARLOTTE, NC — What gorgeous football.
What passionate, breathtaking, completely enjoyable football happened in Charlotte on Thursday night.
Stars starred. Everything mattered.
The Eagles won, 28-23, and moved to 5-1. They won on the road, without right tackle Lane Johnson, on a short week, in prime time. They could — should? — be considered the best team in the NFC in this young 2017 season, all apologies to the Packers and Falcons. The Panthers had a chance at entering that argument but they fell to 4-2.
If they get a little healthier either team has the horses wind up in Minneapolis on Feb. 4 but, of course, not both. With luck, though, the teams will do this all over again in January, most likely 537 miles northeast of Thursday night’s site.
With luck, the football will be just as compelling, just as complete.
Rarely does a marquee game rise to the level of its hype. Such a game should be savored.
The coaches called on their offenses and defenses to execute intricately. They did so. The star quarterbacks made thrilling plays. The top targets made incredible catches.
And the Eagles won.
“We showed them that we are one of the top teams. That was our goal,” said linebacker Nigel Bradham, the best player on the field Thursday night. “Everybody was high on this game. We came ready.”
Ready for anything, which is how you beat the Panthers and Cam Newton.
“Two 4-1 teams, to come in and play that way … short week …” said cornerback Jalen Mills, who sealed the win with an interception. “This is a great team win.”
It was great theater.
You had Newton, the 2015 MVP, vs. Carson Wentz, who might have an MVP in his future. You had Kelvin Benjamin, a 6-foot-5, 245-pound nightmare, and his bookend, Devin Funchess, 6-4 and 225, vs. Alshon Jeffery, 6-foot-4, 230-pounds and tight end Zach Ertz, the most productive tight end in the NFC in the past calendar year. You had Fletcher Cox, Pro Bowl tackle, and Julius Peppers, a 37-year-old sack machine.
On the sidelines you had former Andy Reid assistant Ron Rivera, two-time Coach of the Year, vs. former Andy Reid assistant Doug Pederson, who entered the game having silenced all critics who had questioned his credentials.
They’re even quieter now.
Wentz and Ertz turned two interceptions by Newton into two touchdown passes.
Near the end of the third quarter, with a defender clinging to his knees, Wentz found rookie Mack Hollins, who played at North Carolina, for 20 yards on third-and-16, then then hit Jeffery for 37 more, the bulk of his 71 yards on four catches. And then, as the fourth quarter began, Wentz hit Nelson Agholor for the 24-yard touchdown that made it 28-16, enough for the win. Wentz finished 16-for-30 for 222 yards and those three TDs.
Newton had his moments, too. He hit Benjamin with a 16-yard pass that Benjamin laid out for like a giant Odell Beckham Jr., the best of Benjamin’s eight catches. Newton then scored a touchdown with a 16-yard run that screwed rookie cornerback Rasul Douglas into the ground, on of his 11 runs for 71 yards. Earlier, Newton hit Funchess with an elegant toe-tapper; later, Funchess snared a one-hander. Newton finished 28-for-52 for 239 yards, with a touchdown pass and three interceptions.
He also drew three penalties on the Eagles’ young cornerbacks. One of them, Mills, made that clinching interception, with 3:06 to play.
Cox, the Eagles’ $102 million defensive tackle, returned from a two-game absence and forced the first interception, in the second quarter. He added a sack in the third and batted down a pass. Cox spent more time in Newton’s lap than his kids.
Peppers had a strip-sack on the first series; then, apparently, napped.
Both teams lost their middle linebackers, and still the level of play remained crisp. The Eagles allowed Panthers running backs 1 rushing yard.
The Panthers rode their defense for the first few weeks as Newton’s recovery from shoulder surgery limited his efficiency until the fourth game of the season. Once righted, Newton became the best quarterback in the league the past two weeks; six touchdowns, one interception, a 137.2 passer rating.
Meanwhile, Wentz had taken a leap forward in his last three games; six TDs, one pick, a 105.4 rating in three wins, all fueled by the best third-down play in the NFL.
Pederson calls those third-down plays, and he has found his stride in just his second season as head coach and full-time play-caller. Pederson even analytic-ed himself into a bonus point, when, early in the third quarter, he chose to wipe out an extra point when the Panthers committed a penalty on the kick. Instead of taking a 5-yard penalty on the kickoff Pederson chose to try a 2-point conversion, which, with the penalty, put the ball at the 1-yard line instead of the 2. They converted and took an 18-10 lead.
It was delicious.
For a few hours, football was all that mattered — the game, and the beautiful endeavor it can be. The contest provided an escape from protests, and the painful causes they champion; an escape from the braying from the White House, and from the hateful Twitter battlefield.
The league should be so lucky to have it happen like this again.