8:25 PM EST, CBS – Line: Panthers -3, Over/Under: 46
With five weeks of football in the books, teams around the league are beginning to reveal who they actually are, with tonight’s matchup between the Philadelphia Eagles and Carolina Panthers from Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, North Carolina featuring a pair of teams that appear to have serious designs of postseason success. Granted, this isn’t something new with the Eagles (4-1, 1st in NFC East), who just last year got off to a torrid 4-2 start before dropping seven out of their following eight outings en route to a 7-9 finish, good for last in the competitive NFC East. However, this season has a very different feel to it, as Doug Pederson’s charges look to be far better suited to sustain their early success, particularly given the maturation of their young Quarterback Carson Wentz. The Second Overall Pick in the 2016 NFL Draft certainly had his ups and downs last year, but seems to have smoothed out his rougher edges in his second season under Center in Philadelphia. Management made a concerted effort to put more playmakers around him, particularly in the case of the Receiving Corps where the additions of Alshon Jeffery (20 REC, 246 YDS, 2 TD) and Torrey Smith (13 REC, 204 YDS, 1 TD) have collectively given the passing game more verticality, along with a pair of proven pass-catchers with sure hands. Like most Rookie Quarterbacks, Wentz didn’t push the ball downfield with much success in 2016, averaging a paltry 5.6 Net Yards per Attempt (28th Overall), only to see that figure improve to a much healthier 6.8 Net Yards per Attempt (10th Overall), a clear sign in the Sophomore expressing his confidence in not just his targets, but in the system as a whole. Just take a look at what he did to a stout Cardinals’ Defense in last Sunday’s 34-7 romp at Lincoln Financial Field; Wentz completed 21-of-30 Attempts for 304 Yards, four Touchdowns and an Interception, deftly spreading the wealth with eight different Eagles catching a pass. On the season, he has completed 62.1% of his passes for an average of 272.4 Yards per Game, with ten Touchdowns in comparison to three Interceptions, while also taking advantage of his burly size and making plays with his legs, rushing for another 21.6 Yards per Game on the ground. Speaking of rushing, these birds aren’t just flying high, for Pederson’s charges have done plenty of work on the ground as well, rushing for an average of 138.8 Yards (5th Overall) on 4.5 Yards per Carry (9th Overall), adding some important balance to the Offense. It’s been very much a committee-like approach for this Backfield, with yet another smart Offseason Signee, LaGarrette Blount (56 CAR, 323 YDS, 1 TD), leading the way behind an Offensive Line that is far more settled with Lane Johnson entrenched at Right Tackle. Johnson missed all but six games a year ago after running afoul of the league’s Substance Abuse Policy, with Wentz’s struggles coincidentally becoming more pronounced without the bookend blocker in the trenches. And while Blount may not be scoring all the Touchdowns he did in 2016 (his eighteen led the NFL), he’s looked reinvigorated by the project, averaging a career-high 5.8 Yards per Carry thus far. Defensively, it’s been a bit of a different story, where despite being loaded along the Defensive Line, Philadelphia has very clear holes in their Secondary, and through five weeks it’s become readily apparent that their opponents are aware of this. No team has had to defend the run fewer than the Eagles (16.0 Carries per Game), while at the same time only one team has seen the opposition throw the ball against their defense more (39.4 Attempts per Game), which makes sense given the injury situation at Cornerback, with Ronald Darby out for four-to-six weeks with a dislocated ankle. As a result, they’re giving up 283.2 Yards through the air (29th Overall) on 6.8 Net Yards per Attempt (25th Overall), which is kind of alarming given their ability to pressure the Quarterback (Twelve Sacks).
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Meanwhile, it appears that their 2016 Super Bowl Hangover is indeed over for the Panthers (4-1, 1st in NFC South), who have quietly reasserted themselves as the powerbroker in the NFC South. It comes as no surprise that this return to form for Ron Rivera’s charges has coincided with a return to form of former MVP Cam Newton (68.3%, 247.4 Y/G, 7.04 NY/A, 8 TD, 5 INT), who looks to have put last year’s malaise behind him. While taking a plethora of needless hits and struggling immensely with his accuracy a year ago, No. One has progressed by leaps and bounds as a passer of the football, completing a career-high 68.3% of his attempts, which is noteworthy given the fact that the Offense has been without perennial Pro Bowl Tight End Greg Olsen (3 REC, 28 YDS), who fractured his Right Foot in a Week Two 9-3 victory over the Buffalo Bills. Olsen has been Newton’s preferred target throughout the duration of the Quarterback’s career, hooking up for 431 Receptions on 686 Targets, 5,412 Yards, and thirty-two Touchdowns, oftentimes providing a reliable security blanket on Third Down. Again, it must be stated how surprising it is to see Newton not only enjoy so much success without Olsen, but do so when throwing the ball downfield; No. One has averaged a career-best 7.04 Net Yards per Attempt despite taking fifteen Sacks thus far, or what equates to getting dropped on 9.4% of his Drop-Backs, which would coincidentally also be a career-high. With that said, the end result has been impressive, particularly over the last two weeks in victories at the likes of New England (33-30) and Detroit (27-24), which saw the former No. One Overall Pick outduel two of the hotter Quarterbacks in the league, Tom Brady and Matthew Stafford. Newton completed 48-of-62 Passes for an average of 335.5 Yards on 10.82 Yards per Attempt, with six Touchdowns and an Interception, while proving to the world that he hasn’t forgotten how to make plays with his legs, rushing for another score and forty-four Yards on fifteen Carries. And speaking of making plays, that’s all Rookie Tailback Christian McCaffrey seems to do when he touches the football. The dynamic youngster has been utilized in a myriad of ways, rushing for ninety-six Yards on thirty-four Carries, while hauling in twenty-seven Receptions for 237 Yards and a Touchdown, and also making his presence felt on Special Teams where he’s returned a dozen Punts and three Kickoffs for a combined 136 Yards. Needless to say, the versatility that he brings to the Offense, particularly as a Receiver out of the Backfield, has added a wealth of layers to the attack. However, what should not go unnoticed in Carolina’s recent run is the return to form of their Defense, which along with Newton was a huge component of their run to the Super Bowl two years ago. While they haven’t forced the volume of Turnovers that we’re used to seeing from them (Three, 29th Overall), they’ve done a tremendous job against both the Run and the Pass, allowing an average of 194.2 Yards (5th Overall) through the air on 5.2 Net Yards per Attempt (4th Overall) and 79.8 on the ground (6th Overall) on 4.0 Yards per Carry (17th Overall), all the while yielding just 18.8 Points (9th Overall). Cornerbacks Daryl Worley (18 TKL, 2 PD) and James Bradberry (25 TKL, 3 PD) have developed quite nicely after last year’s baptism by fire, while the pass rush continues to be a real strength, with Rivera’s charges racking up a whopping seventeen Sacks, led by the ageless Julius Peppers (13 TKL, 5.5 SK) who at the age of thirty-seven is back for his second tour of duty with the franchise that drafted him Second Overall back in 2002. We may even see a bit of history tonight, for the nine-time Pro Bowler is one Sack away from notching 150 on his career, which would put him 0.5 Sack behind Chris Doleman (150.5) for fourth on the All-Time List.