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Points allowed during 1st quarter this season by Penn State

Panthers, Newton present major challenge

Posted by Eric Fisher On October 11

Thursday provides an opportunity for the Eagles to bolster their Super Bowl contender credentials. Their opponents, the Carolina Panthers, sport an identical 4-1 record. An Eagles victory on the road during a short week will make a major statement.

That statement couldn’t be made against the Chargers, Giants, Cardinals or Redskins, teams with a combined 5-14 record. The Eagles certainly don’t need to apologize for beating those teams, but the fact is they lost to the only team with a winning record – the undefeated Chiefs – that they’ve faced.

The Eagles barely escaped with a victory against the Giants and Chargers, letting both teams back in the game, but they dominated the Cardinals last Sunday.

How will the Eagles fare against the Panthers?

Here are 10 questions to consider prior to and during Thursday’s game (8:25 p.m.).

1. How much will the team miss Lane Johnson?

Remember, the Eagles were 2-8 last season during Johnson’s 10-game suspension for violating the NFL’s performance-enhancing drug policy. That record wasn’t solely due to Johnson’s absence, but it wasn’t entirely coincidental, either. Johnson has been the Eagles’ best linemen this season, so his absence will be felt. How much his absence is felt will depend partly on how well Halapoulivaati Vaitai plays in his place at right tackle. Ageless defensive end Julius Peppers has 5½ sacks this season. The Panthers also can blitz with their outstanding linebacker corps, so Vaitai needs to be at the top of his game.

2. Will Fletcher Cox play? If so, will he be effective?

Cox, who has missed the past two games due to a calf injury, is a game-time decision, according to Eagles head coach Doug Pederson. The Eagles defense can’t play much better than they did during Sunday’s 34-7 victory over the Cardinals, but, obviously, the defense is better with Cox in the lineup. Defensive tackle Beau Allen is expected to play despite being listed as questionable with a foot injury. Even if Cox can only play in a limited capacity, it will lighten Allen’s load.

3. How does Cam Newton present a different challenge than the recent quarterbacks the Eagles have faced?

The Giants’ Eli Manning, the Chargers’ Philip Rivers and the Cardinals’ Carson Palmer are traditional pocket passers. They are considered relatively immobile, even when they’re not being compared to Newton. A big strong quarterback, Newton is a danger to take off and run. Although he got off to a poor start this season, Newton has completed 68.3 percent of his passes for 1,237 yards and eight touchdowns while throwing five interceptions. The Eagles must be much more conscious of containing Newton in the pocket than they were the past three weeks with the other quarterbacks.

4. Can the Eagles connect on deep passes?

Carson Wentz certainly alleviated some of the concerns about his ability to throw the deep pass last week with a 72-yard touchdown pass to Nelson Agholor and a 59-yarder to Torrey Smith. The Panthers may be vulnerable to the deep ball due to the absence of former Eagle Kurt Coleman and Demetrious Cox, the Panthers’ top two free safeties. Special teams standout Colin Jones and veteran Jarius Byrd, signed last week, will try to fill the void. Starting cornerbacks Darryl Worley and James Bradberry are expected to play despite minor injuries.

5. Can the Eagles continue to run the ball effectively?

Eagles head coach Doug Pederson said that running the football is a “mindset.” Pederson has been committed to the running game for three straight weeks. It’s one thing to run the ball against the terrible run defenses of the Giants and Chargers. It’s another for the Eagles to run the ball relatively successfully against the Cardinals, are were ranked 10th in the NFL, limiting opponents to 88 yards per game. Wendell Smallwood, who didn’t play against the Cardinals, is listed as questionable. He’s a game-time decision, according to Pederson. The Eagles will face a challenge running the ball against the Panthers defense, which is good along the defensive line and outstanding at linebacker, with Luke Kuechly (42 tackles) in the middle, flanked by Thomas Davis and Shaq Thompson.

6. How healthy are the Eagles’ defensive linemen?

Fletcher Cox and Beau Allen aren’t the only defensive linemen on the injury report. Veteran defensive end Chris Long is also listed as questionable with a foot injury. Although Long and Allen are expected to play, the short recovery time before a Thursday night game makes one wonder how healthy the Eagles’ linemen will be on a week when they have to chase around Cam Newton.

7. Which team has the better quarterback?

Carson Wentz and Cam Newton are both big, strong quarterbacks. Newton has more of a tendency to run Wentz is more likely to use his evasiveness to create time to throw, but he’s certainly capable of running for double digits in yardage. Wentz is a better pocket passer, so I’ll give Wentz the edge, but it’s not by a wide margin.

8. Will Nelson Agholor continue his turnaround?

Agholor caught 36 passes last season for 365 yards and two touchdowns. He has already caught 16 passes for 266 yards this season, and has surpassed last season’s total with three touchdowns. He still isn’t consistent, but he appears to be much more confident. A second straight good game would bolster that confidence even more.

9. How have the Panthers turned their fortunes around this season?

The Panthers were 6-10 last season. But they didn’t turn around their fortunes right away. They weren’t overly impressive while defeat the 49ers in their season opener (23-3) and the Bills (9-3) in the second week off the season. They were even worse during Week 3, getting blown out by the Saints, 34-13. But they’ve rebounded with road victories over the Patriots (33-30) and Linos (27-24) the past two weeks. A victory over the Eagles would be their third straight win over a quality opponent.

10. Are we overrating the importance of this game?

Perhaps. After all, the Eagles have a comfortable lead in the division, with the Redskins (2-2) and Cowboys (2-3) pretty far back in the rearview mirror, and the Giants (0-5) too far back to inhale the Eagles’ dust. Although the Eagles have the comfort room to withstand a defeat, a victory could put even more distance between the Eagles, who follow this game with three straight games at Lincoln Financial Field, and their closest pursuers. More importantly, it would be a huge psychological boost for a team that lost to the only above-.500 team it played. The Eagles won’t get the opportunity to beat a team currently with a winning record until hosting the Broncos on Nov. 5. The Eagles don’t want to miss this opportunity.

Prediction: There’s a lot to like about the Eagles right now. Carson Wentz is playing with tremendous poise, Doug Pederson appears committed to the running game, and the defense is playing extremely well. But Thursday night games are particularly difficult for the road team, and that’s the position the Eagles find themselves in this week. Lane Johnson’s absence and the Panthers’ front seven, particularly their linebackers, have me leaning toward the Eagles’ three-game winning streak coming to an end. Prediction: Panthers 24, Eagles 23.

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Carson Wentz owes Jake Elliott some money