CHARLOTTE, N.C. — If any skepticism remained about the start to the Eagles' season, it should have vanished by the time Jalen Mills intercepted Cam Newton's pass in the final minutes of the 28-23 win over the Carolina Panthers on Thursday night. Or maybe the doubt disappeared on the previous two interceptions, or after any of Carson Wentz's three touchdown passes.
What cannot be disputed is that the Eagles are 5-1 and appear to be one of the best teams in the NFL, a distinction strengthened with a statement win on the road over the Panthers on a short week. Their success can no longer be attributed to playing weak opponents; the Panthers also entered the game 4-1. Six games into the season is early, but it shouldn't be dismissed as too soon for excitement. And with three consecutive home games ahead of them, the Eagles will have a chance to improve their record.
"It's a tremendous testament to the players in that locker room," coach Doug Pederson said. "I told them tonight after the game that I haven't been a part of a team that has battled through so much injury and adversity through the first month of the season, to stay together. …It's a fun thing to watch."
The Eagles have reached this point with injuries at different times to key players such as Fletcher Cox, Lane Johnson, Darren Sproles, Rodney McLeod, Ronald Darby, and Wendell Smallwood. The secondary has been depleted, the defensive line has been undermanned, the backfield has been weakened. Yet the Eagles keep responding. Thursday's win came with Johnson out of the lineup. In the locker room, they're not seeking excuses. They believe they're supposed to win these games.
"Having a year together with this team under coach, myself, we're just built differently," Wentz said. "We have a different character makeup in that locker room. We just have a bunch of guys that believe no matter the situation, we can win the ball game."
It also helps having Wentz, who finished 16 of 30 for 222 yards and three touchdowns. LeGarrette Blount led all rushers with 67 yards. Zach Ertz caught two touchdown passes, and Alshon Jeffery led receivers with 71 receiving yards.
The key was an Eagles defense that forced three turnovers to help tilt the game in their favor. Wentz said "that was difference in the ball game." In the second quarter, with the Eagles trailing by seven points, Cox hit Cam Newton as Newton released a pass. The ball floated in the air, and rookie cornerback Rasul Douglas settled underneath for an interception in the red zone. He returned it 7 yards to give the Eagles possession at the 12-yard line.
Facing a fourth-and-1 at the 3-yard line, Pederson did not want to settle for a field goal. He wanted to tie the game. He relied on Wentz for a quarterback sneak to gain the first down, giving the Eagles a fresh set of downs to score. It took three plays for Wentz to find Ertz in the back of the end zone to tie the game.
The tie was broken after the next big turnover on the Panthers' opening drive of the second half. Patrick Robinson dove to catch a ball that fluttered through Panthers running back Jonathan Stewart's hands for an interception that gave the Eagles possession at the 17-yard line. After two plays, Wentz connected with Ertz again for a 17-yard touchdown pass and an eight-point lead after the Eagles succeeded on a two-point conversions.
"We talk about takeaways all the time," Pederson said. "It's hard to go the length of the field on that team. Just fortunate we had the short field on those particular times."
The Eagles almost had another interception on the next possession. Rodney McLeod picked off Newton on a deep pass downfield, but it was nullified because Jalen Mills was flagged for pass interference. The Eagles were outraged by the call, which was one of 10 penalties charged to them. The Panthers were only flagged once. The flags bothered the team after the game, although Pederson was diplomatic when asked about the calls. It helps when the questions come after a win.
""Ten to 1?" Pederson said after a pause. "It's part of the game."
The Panthers turned the field position into points with a field goal. The Eagles responded with a field goal of their own. When the Panthers settled for another one late in the quarter, but the Eagles would not fade.
Wentz has answered the bell on third down all season, and he didn't stop Thursday. Facing a third-and-16 on the Eagles' 19-yard line, Wentz navigated through a blitz to hit Mack Hollins for a 20-yard gain. That extended a drive that finished when Nelson Agholor caught a 24-yard touchdown on the first play of the fourth quarter to give the Eagles a two-possession lead.
"That was a huge drive," Wentz said. "Just kept the foot on the gas and found a way to get into the end zone."
That touchdown proved critical. The Panthers failed to snap the ball in time on a third-and-10 at the Eagles' 23-yard line, but Derek Barnett didn't hear a whistle. The rookie defensive end pulled Newton to the ground, and the Eagles were charged with a personal foul. That flag put the Panthers in position for Newton's 1-yard touchdown pass to Christian McCaffrey, cutting the Eagles' lead to 28-23.
That was the score when the Panthers forced a punt midway through the fourth quarter. They extended their drive by converting a fourth-and-1, but Newton quickly tossed a wayward deep pass that Mills intercepted. Even though the offense could not run out the clock, the defense returned to the field and stopped Newton again to secure the victory.
"We're up for any challenge," McLeod said of the secondary. "We just put the league on notice. …It was a good night to do it on Thursday night football, everybody's watching. And versus a good team. What better way than getting three interceptions?"
The Eagles have endured injuries throughout the first six weeks, and that list continued to grow when linebacker Jordan Hicks left the game with an ankle injury and special-teams ace Chris Maragos exited with a knee injury. It helped having Cox back in the lineup, although on the opening drive, it appeared Johnson's absence could again haunt the Eagles. Panthers defensive end Julius Peppers rushed around Halapoulivaati Vaitai to sack Wentz and force a fumble, drawing flashbacks to Vaitai's first start.
But the Eagles recovered, showing the qualities of a tough-minded team. The defense made big plays. The offense responded to every challenge. Kicker Jake Elliott was automatic. There are no trophies for impressive records in October, but Thursday should convince anyone that the Eagles should be taken seriously this season.
"We've got to learn from last year," Pederson said. "We have put in a really good position, obviously, the first six games of the year. But the season's not over."