Philadelphia Eagles vs. Carolina Panthers: Prediction, preview, pick to win

By The Sports Xchange  |  Oct. 10, 2017 at 7:27 PM
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PHILADELPHIA EAGLES (4-1) AT CAROLINA PANTHERS (4-1)

GAME SNAPSHOT

KICKOFF: Thursday, 8:25 p.m. ET, Bank of America Stadium, TV: CBS/NFL Network, Jim Nantz, Tony Romo, Tracy Wolfson (field reporter), Jay Feely (field reporter).

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 Philadelphia's 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.

KEYS TO THE GAME: Not that it's unusual, but this game is surely a tale of two quarterbacks.

For Panthers quarterback Cam Newton, significant strides have been made in the past two games, as he has had regular practice repetitions and parlayed that into huge outings against New England and Detroit. Now comes the next part of the recovery from offseason shoulder surgery. While the Panthers went light on Newton's workload in the preseason and during the first few weeks of the season, there's no reprieve going into Thursday night's games. Newton will be throwing on short rest.

"I have to trust the coaches and trust the process when it comes to my arm, knowing that certain throws (are tough)," Newton said.

As for Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz, it will be important to continue the excellence he has displayed on third down in the first five games of the season.

Wentz completed 11 of 12 third-down passes against the Cardinals Sunday 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 Tom Brady, who is second.

"We've emphasized situational football since the spring," said Wentz. "Situational football is huge. That's what separates good teams."

The Eagles are currently first in the NFL in third-down efficiency, converting 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.

A large part of the Eagles' third-down success has been a commitment to the run. They have averaged 38 carries per game and have rushed for 529 yards the last three weeks.

Meanwhile, the Panthers will be intent on resurrecting their rushing attack. They had only 28 rushing yards at Detroit last Sunday.

Newton and the offense will also have to be mindful of Philadelphia's blitz tendencies. Through five games, the Eagles' opponent passer rating when they send five or more rushers is 58.0. Last year it was 89.6. Opponents have a 46.5 completion percentage and are averaging just 4.5 yards per attempt when the Eagles blitz.

MATCHUPS TO WATCH

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Eagles RT Halapoulivaati Vaitai vs. Panthers DEs Julius Peppers and Charles Johnson. Youth vs. 27 combined years of NFL experience. Vaitai, who will likely be subbing for concussed Lane Johnson, has his work cut out for him.

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Panthers WRs Devin Funchess and Kelvin Benjamin vs. Eagles CBs Jalen Mills, Rasul Douglas and Patrick Robinson. Funchess and Benjamin both are big, strong 6-foot-5 targets who are going to be tough matchups for the Eagles' cornerbacks.

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Eagles RB LeGarrette Blount vs. Panthers MLB Luke Kuechly. Blount has a team-high 13 rushing first downs and is averaging 5.1 yards per carry on first down. If the Eagles can't get Kuechly blocked, though, it's going to be a long night.

PLAYER SPOTLIGHT: Carolina linebacker Thomas Davis. The franchise's all-time leader in tackles has been hampered by some ailments, but he continues to make an impact. The Eagles often bring out some of the best in Davis, so he could be fired up again. In 2015, he posted a season-high 14 tackles against the Eagles and in 2012 he recovered a fumble at Philadelphia to set up the game-winning field goal.

FAST FACTS: Eagles QB Carson Wentz completed 21 of 30 (70 pct.) for 304 yards, 4 TDs & 1 INT for 128.3 rating in Week 5. In past 3 on road, has 882 pass yards (294 per game), 5 TDs & 2 INTs for 89.8 rating. RB LeGarrette Blount rushed for 118 yards & TD in last meeting (9/21/14 with Pit.). Has 8 TDs (7 rush, 1 rec.) in past 11 on road. In past 2 on Thursday, has 177 rush yards (88.5 per game) & 2 TDs. WR Nelson Agholor led team with career-high 93 rec. yards & TD last week. Has TD in 2 of past 3 on road. DE Brandon Graham has 3.5 sacks & FF in past 5. Has 4.5 sacks & FF in past 5 on Thursday. Panthers QB Cam Newton has completed 48 of 62 (77.4 pct.) for 671 yards (335.5 per game), 6 TDs & 1 INT for 137.2 rating in past 2. Has 5 rush TDs in 6 career Thursday games. RB Jonathan Stewart has 161 rush yards (80.5 per game) & TD in past 2 meetings. WR Devin Funchess has 14 catches for 123 yards & 3 TDs in past 2. DT Kawann Short had career-high 3 sacks & FF in last meeting. LB Luke Kuechly has 27 tackles (9 per game) in 3 career meetings. In 6 career Thursday games, has 59 tackles (9.8 per game) & 2 INTs, incl. 49-yard INT-TD.

PREDICTION: This battle of 4-1 teams is virtually a toss-up. Both teams have play-making quarterbacks and receivers that have the ability to also make plays. The difference could come down to whether Eagles right tackle lane Johnson can play. Having a Thursday game while in concussion from Sunday protocol makes it nigh impossible to clear the program in time, especially with Philadelphia having to travel. His likely absence tips the scales in Carolina's favor.

OUR PICK: Winner, Panthers 20-14

--Howard Balzer

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