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Points by Ben Simmons during Game 3 victory over Nets

You gotta believe!

Posted by Eric Fisher On October 12

Thursday night was the Eagles’ big test.

They passed with flying colors.

The final result wasn’t a masterpiece, but nobody should be complaining about an impressive 28-23 triumph on the road against the Panthers.

The victory gives the Eagles (5-1) the best record in the NFC. They have more wins than the rest of the teams in the NFC East combined, with the Redskins (2-2) the closest pursuers.

The Eagles made a statement with their victory Thursday. These weren’t the Chargers or Giants. These were the Panthers (4-2), a team coming off road wins over the Patriots and Lions. No longer is there a “but” following the Eagles’ record. Now they’ve beaten a good team.

Carson Wentz didn’t have his best day, completing 16 of 30 passes for 222 yards, but he threw three touchdown passes, two to Zach Ertz and one to Nelson Agholor, without throwing an interception despite relentless pressure by the Panthers.

By contrast, Cam Newton threw three interceptions while throwing just one touchdown pass. Wentz was the better quarterback Thursday night.

Defense never rests

The Eagles also won the defensive matchup. Not only did Rasul Douglas, Patrick Robinson and Jalen Mills intercept passes, but the defense smothered the Panthers’ running game. The Panthers’ running backs finished the game with 9 yards rushing.

This is the fourth straight week that the Eagles have stifled the opponent’s rushing attack to the point that the other team’s offense becomes one-dimensional. That plays right into the hands of defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz, who can unleash his players to head upfield with little concern for defending the run.

The pressure forces the other team’s quarterback into mistakes. That certainly was the case with Newton on Thursday.

Newton ran for 71 yards and a touchdown on 11 carries, but, other than a first-half stretch when he completed eight straight passes, Newton appeared unsteady, throwing high and low and making bad decisions. The Eagles had decent opportunities for two or three more interceptions.

Even an erratic Newton is still dangerous, though. He led the Panthers back within striking distance after the Eagles took a 28-16 lead on the first play of the fourth quarter.

Wentz took advantage of a Panthers blitz by finding Agholor matched up against linebacker Shaq Thompson. Agholor took a quick pass and ran away from Thompson for a 24-yard touchdown on the first play of the fourth quarter. Agholor has four touchdown receptions this season, one more than he had during his first two NFL seasons.

Of course, the Eagles never would have had that opportunity if they hadn’t climbed out of a second-and-25 hole and converted on third-and-16 earlier in the drive. They continue to be the best team in the NFL at converting on third down, particularly on third-and-long.

The Panthers responded with a 13-play drive that culminated in a 1-yard touchdown pass from Newton to rookie running back Christian McCaffrey (10 catches for 56 yards) with 8:04 remaining.

Preserving the lead

Unlike the past two games, the Eagles weren’t able to control the fourth quarter with long, clock-killing drives. The Panthers defense forced the Eagles to go 3-and-out on their next two possessions. But the Eagles defense preserved the lead even though the Panthers advanced into Eagles territory on their next two drives.

The Panthers reached the Eagles 41-yard line before stalling. Two plays after Douglas dropped an interception on a deep throw, Mills easily intercepted a pass on a bad throw by Newton, who rushed his throw while under pressure from a blitz.

The Panthers got the ball back one more time. They advanced to the Eagles 48, but linebacker Nigel Bradham, who had his best game as an Eagle, deflected Newtown’s third-down pass, and his fourth-down throw to McCaffrey was low.

Big plays

The defense turned the game around with big plays late in the first half and at the start of the second half, with interceptions setting up a pair of short touchdown drives. The Eagles only had three points late in the first half when Fletcher Cox, returning to the lineup after missing two games with a calf injury, muscled his blocker back into Newton as he threw, forcing a pop up throw that was caught by Douglas, setting the Birds up on the 12-yard line.

It took the Eagles seven plays to move 12 yards against the Panthers’ stubborn defense, but a third-down pass to Ertz in the back of the end zone pulled the Eagles even at 10-10 with 2:32 remaining in the first half.

Robinson’s interception in the first minute of the second half set up Wentz’s 17-yard touchdown pass to Ertz 1:01 into the third quarter. After being limited to three points during the first 27 minutes of the game, the Eagles scored two touchdowns in a span of 3:33.

There was a critical moment during the second play of the Eagles’ short touchdown drive at the end of the first half. On second down, right guard Brandon Brooks pulled to his left and clobbered Panthers linebacker Luke Kuechly, catching him in the jaw with his forearm. Kuechly, who has had concussion issues in the past, left the game with what later was diagnosed as a concussion.

No apologies necessary

Without their standout middle linebacker, the Panthers’ defense wasn’t quite as fearsome as it was for most of the first half. But the Eagles weren’t making any apologies. They lost middle linebacker Jordan Hicks for the second half due to an ankle injury.

In fact, the Eagles don’t have to make apologies to anyone.

With a victory over a good team on the road – on a short week – the Eagles no longer have to listen to complaints that they haven’t beaten a good team.

The Panthers are a good team. But they weren’t good enough to beat the Eagles, who will get an 11-day rest before beginning a stretch in which they have three straight home games against the Redskins, 49ers and Broncos. Wins in two of those three games would give the Eagles a 7-2 record entering their bye week.

With a terrific offense, defense and special teams, the Eagles look like a Super Bowl contender. It’s still early in the season – a lot can happen during the next 11 weeks – but it’s difficult not to get excited about the Eagles’ progress.

Thursday’s signatures win should convince even the most hardened skeptic that the Eagles are for real.

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