8:30 PM EST, ESPN – Line: Philadelphia -7
Reigning division champions meet tonight at Lincoln Financial Field, as the Philadelphia Eagles host the struggling Carolina Panthers on Monday Night Football. Philadelphia (6-2) currently sits atop the NFC East once more, but experienced a potentially season-altering change when Nick Foles went down for the count at Houston with a broken collarbone. Foles started the game well enough, completing 9-of-12 passes for 124 yards, a touchdown and an interception in little over a quarter of play. However, early in the Second Quarter, the young Quarterback was driven into the turf, breaking his clavicle, thus effectively sidelining him for the following six to eight weeks. So in comes Mark Sanchez, who Chip Kelly and Co. cunningly acquired in the Offseason. The former Jet played well upon his return to the field, completing 15-of-22 passes for 202 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions, while leading the Eagles on five scoring drives over the final three quarters of play. LeSean McCoy was stellar in support, rushing for 117 yards on 24 carries, while fellow Tailback Chris Polk added another 50 yards and a score on eight carries. Despite winning the game 31-21, the score didn’t quite indicate how close the contest really was; Kelly’s charges amassed a whopping 483 yards of total offense, including 293 through the air and another 190 on the ground, but committed a disappointing four turnovers to keep the hosts in contention to the very end. And with that said, the prevailing question is this: if Foles will indeed miss the remainder of the Regular Season, is Sanchez up to task in keeping this team afloat?
So to answer that question properly, we need clarification that you’re referring to that Mark Sanchez who hasn’t started a game since 2012? We’re talking about that Mark Sanchez that went 14-17 between 2011 and 2012 as the starting Quarterback for the New York Jets, before missing the entire 2013 campaign with a shoulder injury? We can’t be talking about that Mark Sanchez who gave us all the ridiculously laughable “Butt Fumble” on Thanksgiving Night? Yeah, that’s the guy whom the Eagles are pinning their postseason hopes on. But beyond all of those punchlines, Sanchez remains fully capable of not only leading this team to the Playoffs, but perhaps even further than that. After all, it was an injury to Michael Vick around this same time last season that prompted Kelly to make the switch to Foles, serving as the impetus towards their run to the division title. In regards to Sanchez, the former Fifth Overall Pick could prove his coach to be a genius once more; this is the same Mark Sanchez that led the Jets to back-to-back AFC Championship Games in his first two seasons in this league, owning a 4-2 record in the Playoffs as a starting Quarterback. It’s the belief of many that his struggles towards the end of his tenure in the Big Apple were largely due to the lack of supporting cast, which is defiinitely not the case in the City of Brotherly Love, where he now has the luxury of handing the ball off to the NFL’s reigning rushing champion, LeSean McCoy. The elusive Tailback hasn’t quite measured up to the numbers he posted last season (1,607 yards, 5.1 yards/carry), averaging 77.8 yards on 3.9 yards per carry, but that is mostly due to the upheaval along the Offensive Line, which has seen four of it’s number miss significant time with injuries. Todd Herremans (ankle) and Allen Barbre (ankle) are both on Injured Reserve, while Jason Kelce (hernia) and Evan Mathis (knee) could finally make thier return tonight.
Meanwhile, it’s been quite a bit since the Panthers (3-5-1) won a football game. Actually, it’s been four weeks since their last victory, and if you really want to dig deep, Carolina has only won one contest since opening the season with back-to-back victories. Ron Rivera’s charges have been one of the bigger disappointments in the league this season, particularly given the optimism coming off of a 12-4 campaign and the the franchise’s first NFC South Title since 2008. There are problems on both sides of the ball; offensively, they’ve only been able to muster 12.0 points per game on just 276.0 yards in thier last three outings, while ceding 26.3 points on 349.3 yards defensively. Turnovers have proven to be a huge culprit in their demise thus far; since starting the campaign 2-0 and committing no turnovers, the Panthers have given the ball away a dozen times over the past seven games, including six times during this latest winless streak. Furthermore, Rivera has seen his team manage a plus-seven differential in their three victories, but a minus-three differential in all other matchups. Yet with all that said, the NFC South has been largely mediocre, and with a win tonight this team would be one game behind the Saints for first place in the division.
So what in the name of George Seifert is going on in Carolina, you ask? Simply put, this team hardly resembles the one that went 12-4 a year ago thanks in large part to a vastly different cast of characters. In the offseason, the Panthers curiously allowed their top four Wide Recievers to leave via Free Agency, while veteran stalwart Left Tackle Jordan Gross decided to abruptly retire. Defensive Backs Mike Mitchell and Captain Munnerlyn also departed for greener pastures, leaving Rivera without many key contributors to last season’s playoff run. But that wasn’t the end of the misfortune, as Defensive End Greg Hardy (15.5 sacks) was basically forced into exile thanks to being placed on the Commisioner’s Exemption List for a lingering Domestic Violence Case, participating in just one game thus far. And then there is the utter decimation of the Backfield, which has seen Both DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart miss multiple contests, and Mike Tolbert land on Injured Reserve with a torn ACL. So with that said, their strengths have now become glaring weaknesses; Carolina’s ground game is only churning out 94.7 yards per game (27th overall) on 3.7 yards per carry (26th overall), while the defense has been gashed for 26.2 points (4th overall) on 378.1 yards (25th overall), including 131.9 on the ground (27th overall). As you would expect, Cam Newton has not fared for the better, as the former No. One Overall Pick has struggled to carry the team on his shoulders without the help of his supporting cast. After a campaign in which he set career-highs in a number of categories, Newton as regressed, completing 57.4% of his passes for an average of 224.3 yards (7.0 yards/attempt), with eight touchdowns and five interceptions, while rushing for another 257 yards and a pair of scores on the ground. It’s just been too much for him to handle; in his eight starts this term, Newton has accounted for a total of 2,051 yards or in other words a 80.2% of the Panthers’ offense, the highest such figure of any Quarterback in the league.