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Eagles flying high with a 5–1 start

The NFC East leaders have risen to the top of the NFL conversation

Tight end Zach Ertz scored two touchdowns in Thursday’s 28–23 victory over the Carolina Panthers.

Photo by TJ Engler / contrastphotography.com

By Al Thompson

The Eagles overcame injuries, mistakes, and a relentless pass rush to defeat the Carolina Panthers 28–23 on the road. The Birds are sitting on top of the NFC with a 5–1 record and are looking at three straight home games.
Carson Wentz completed 16-of-30 passes for 222 yards, three touchdowns and zero interceptions. He was sacked three times and lost a fumble on the first play of the the Eagles first drive. Wentz was hit a number of times during the physical contest. Wentz rushed for 25 yards on six carries and LeGarrette Blount ran for 67 yards on 14 carries.
The Eagles defense intercepted Carolina quarterback Cam Newton three times and hit him a number of other times. Newton’s third pick, with just over three minutes remaining, pretty much sealed the Eagles victory. Newton badly overthrew Russell Shepard and was picked by Jalen Mills at the Eagles 16-yard line. Newton, who was brilliant the last two weeks in road wins over the Patriots and Lions, was 28-of-52 for 239 yards with a touchdown and the three interceptions. He also ran for 71 yards and a touchdown as Panthers running backs Jonathan Stewart, Fozzy Whittaker and Christian McCaffrey combined for just one rushing yard on 13 carries. After trading field goals in the first quarter, the Panthers scored the game’s first touchdown thanks to three incredible plays. The scoring drive was initially set up by McCaffrey’s 25-yard punt return to the Eagles 43-yard line. Kelvin Benjamin then kept the drive alive with a diving 14-yard catch at the 16.
Newton ran it in from there as a lane opened up and he juked his way past Eagles rookie cornerback Rasul Douglas for an easy touchdown. Douglas got some revenge on the next Panthers possession. Fletcher Cox, out the last two weeks with a calf injury, hit Newton as he was throwing. That resulted in a fluttering ball that Douglas grabbed at the Panthers 12-yard line.
Wentz needed seven plays but finally passed to Zach Ertz down the middle for a 1-yard touchdown to make the score 10–10 and that is how the half ended. In the third quarter, after a Newton interception on the Panthers’ first drive, Wentz hit Zach Ertz again down the middle for 17-yard touchdown. Because of a Panthers penalty on the made extra point kick, Eagles head coach elected to take the penalty that put the ball at the one-yard line. Pederson went for a two-point attempt and got it with a Blount run to the right making the score 18–10.
The Panthers’ following drive stalled and ended up with Graham Gano kicking a 20-yard field goal to make the score 18–13. The Eagles followed with a Jake Elliott 48-yard field goal making the score 21–13. With 3:23 left in the third Gano kicked a 46-yard field goal and the period ended with the Eagles holding a 21–16 lead.
In the fourth quarter, Wentz passed to Nelson Agholor for a 24-yard touchdown to make the score 28–16. With 8:04 left in the fourth Newton connected with McCaffrey for one-yard touchdown to make it 28–23.
Both teams tried to mount drives but the Panthers ran out of time.
Alshon Jeffery led the Eagles with 4 catches for 71 yards. Agholor had four catches for 55 yards and a the 24-yard touchdown pass, rookie receiver Mack Hollins recorded two receptions for 38 yards before leaving the game with an injury and Ertz only had the two catches for 18 but both were for touchdowns.
The Eagles now have a commanding lead in the NFC East. They already own division wins over the second-place Redskins (3–2) and the Giants (1–5). Thursday’s win also gives them a tie-breaker over the Panthers, which could be important for playoff seeding.
The Panthers (4–2) lost more than a game Thursday as Pro Bowl linebacker Luke Kuechly left late in the first half with a concussion. He was replaced by David Mayo, who played well, but the Panthers will miss Kuechly and hope his latest concussion isn’t a career-ender for the 26-year-old Ohio native. The six-year veteran has missed nine games over the last two seasons because of concussions.
The Eagles also may have lost one of their best defenders when linebacker Jordan Hicks left the game in the third quarter and did not return. His status was unknown Thursday night after the game.
The Eagles were without starting right tackle Lane Johnson who is out with a concussion.
He was replaced by second-year offensive lineman Halapoulivaati Vaitai, who had a shaky start giving up a fumble/sack on the first play of the game to veteran defensive end Julius Peppers but settled down. That was Peppers’ only tackle of the game.
Linebacker Nigel Bradham had arguably his best game as an Eagle. He was all over the field. He recorded 10 tackles and knocked down two passes. Fellow linebacker Mychal Kendricks registered 15 tackles.
Pederson talked about how his team has been able to win five of their first six games when four were on the road and do s0 while missing key players every week.
“It’s a tremendous testament to the players in that locker room,” Pederson said. “I told them after the game that I haven’t been part of a team that battled through so much injury and adversity in the first month and half of the season and stay together.
“The resiliency of this football team started to show last year at end of the year. They’re learning from last year on how to finish games and just the overall consistency, the leaders who are leading this football team, they’re sacrificing for each other, for themselves and the team…it’s a fun thing to watch.”
Pederson can count that the entire Delaware Valley is saying the same thing right now.

Follow Al Thompson on Twitter @thompsoniii

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