PHILADELPHIA -- Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz had the best game of his young career Sunday against Arizona, throwing for 304 yards and his first four-touchdown performance. He had a 100-plus passer rating for the first time since Week 4 of his rookie season.
But the big story was what Wentz did on third down in the 34-7 win. Actually, what he's done in the first five games on third down.
Wentz completed 11 of 12 third-down passes against the Cardinals for 225 yards and three touchdowns. Through five games, he's first in the league in third-down passing with a 137.8 passer rating, more than 17 points ahead of some guy named Tom Brady, who is second in third-down passing.
"We've emphasized situational football since the spring," said Wentz, who will lead his 4-1 team against the 4-1 Carolina Panthers Thursday night at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte. "Situational football is huge. That's what separates good teams.
"To be effective on third down and stay on the field, that helps time of possession. That helps the defense. It's a big part of the game."
Thanks largely to Wentz and the passing game, the Eagles are first in the NFL in third-down efficiency through five games. They've converted 53.4 percent of their third-down opportunities. The Panthers are second with a 50.0 third-down conversion rate. Whoever wins the third-down battle Thursday night is likely to win the 60-minute war.
But that was then and this is now. He is a better quarterback and he has better receivers, including wide receivers Alshon Jeffery and Torrey Smith. Against the Cardinals Sunday, he threw a 59-yard touchdown pass to Smith on a third-and-five, and a 72-yard scoring pass to Nelson Agholor on a third-and-19.
"He's a better quarterback, which is a big part of it," head coach Doug Pederson said. "Another part is the personnel we have (this year) on offense helps that. The offensive-line protection helps that.
"This is one of those things we talked all spring and summer about with him. Third downs. Emphasizing the third downs."
On Thursday night, they'll be going up against a pretty good Carolina defense that is 10th in third-down defense and has 17 sacks.
SERIES HISTORY: 10th regular-season meeting. Eagles lead series, 6-3. The last meeting was in 2015 in Charlotte in Chip Kelly's final season as head coach. The Panthers won, 27-16, dominating the Eagles on the ground. They rushed for 204 yards, including 125 by Jonathan Stewart. The most memorable game of the series was when they met in the 2003 NFC Championship Game in Philadelphia. The Panthers won that game as well.
The Eagles have given Carson Wentz a lot more freedom this season to change calls at the line of scrimmage. He did it at North Dakota State in the pro-style offense he played there, which has put him ahead of a lot of second-year quarterbacks in the league who came out of a college spread and had to learn pre-snap reads from scratch.
"He's not hesitating to make a call or make an adjustment," offensive coordinator Frank Reich said. "But it hasn't gotten out of control. That's what I like. An immature young player might just start doing it at will. Carson has demonstrated control and restraint in not getting crazy with it and knowing when to pick his spots. And he's picked them."