CHARLOTTE, N.C. — The Eagles put the rest of the NFL on alert with a tough, hard fought 28-23 win over the Panthers in front of a nationally-televised audience on Thursday night. Here's what we learned:
1. The Eagles aren't a fluke, Part III. For the previous two weeks, in this exact space, I wrote that the Eagles weren't pretenders following a road victory over the Chargers and a complete drubbing of the Cardinals. I wrote that they were clearly better than I and others had incorrectly thought they'd be this season. But I wasn't sure how much better or if they really were the top-five NFL team that many had ranked them based partly on the nature of being 4-1. I wrote that the Panthers game would give us a better indication of their legitimacy. The Eagles would be facing another 4-1 squad, one two seasons removed from a Super Bowl appearance and apparently back to playing near that level. They would be playing on the road on a short week. And they would be without at least one key starter in right tackle Lane Johnson. Well, the Eagles overcame those obstacles and some questionable officiating by Pete Morelli's crew and delivered an emphatic statement. They should be considered among the elites of the league. They're 5-1 and have three more wins than their closest competitors in the NFC East. I've been around teams that had similar starts. Chip Kelly's 2014 group opened the season 6-1. But his wins often felt hollow. His teams rarely toppled giants and they never won games by physically dominating teams. This Eagles team went toe to toe with a well-coached team that has a core group of veterans and, quite frankly, beat them into submission. The Panthers would not go quietly. But the Eagles battled to the very end. Was it always pretty? No. But Thursday night games are hardly ever clean. The Eagles shouldn't look beyond their next game, but we can. They have 10 days before their next game — a Monday night game against the Redskins at the Linc. They play their next three at home before a bye. And they don't have to board a plane for another road game for 38 days. Oh, and the combined record of their 10 remaining opponents is 18-30. It all sounds too good to be true. And it probably is. The NFL schedule is a grind. Every week is its own entity. But the Eagles are off to an impressive start. And I don't foresee a collapse or a late-season meltdown (see: 2014).
2. Doug Pederson can coach. And I'm not just talking about the big picture details every head coach must deal with on a weekly basis, like motivating the players, putting out injury and discipline fires, or handling the media. Pederson is right now calling a game as well as any offensive play caller. It helps to have Carson Wentz and some weapons. But consider the first play of the fourth quarter. The Eagles are up, 21-16. They faced a second down and 10 at the Panthers 24. They've had some time to go over their next play because of the change in quarters. I don't know if Carolina had the wrong personnel on the field — and it's unlikely since the Eagles weren't going up tempo — but Pederson's call got Nelson Agholor lined up against linebacker Shaq Thompson in the slot. Thompson isn't your normally-sized linebacker. He's one of the new breed safety-hybrids that can cover receiver-like tight ends. But this wasn't a matchup that favored the Panthers. Agholor is fast and nimble and he turned Thompson around with a slight outside turn of the hips. He had five-plus yards of cushion and Wentz hit him in stride. Agholor took care of the rest and waltzed into the end zone untouched. Maybe there was a blown coverage. Maybe Thompson was expecting inside help from the safety. But I'd wager that Pederson and his coaches had picked up on a tendency and exploited it at the right moment.
3. Doug Pederson can manage. Some don't like Pederson's aggressiveness. Some think that he is careless on fourth down. I like it. It gives the Eagles a certain edge and it shows that Pederson isn't afraid to fail. If he succeeds few will credit him for the gamble. If he fails more will lambaste him. The Eagles only went for it on fourth down once and it was a pretty obvious call. They had less than a yard to gain at the Carolina 3-yard line, and Wentz has been successful on every sneak this season. But the Panthers were unyielding on the ground and Wentz had already taken many hits. The Eagles converted and three plays later knotted the score, 10-10, when Wentz hit Zach Ertz in the end zone. Pederson's other roll of the dice had longer odds. The Eagles had just scored to take a 16-10 lead early in the third quarter and the Panthers were penalized during the extra point. Should Pederson have Jake Elliott kick an easier extra point or should he try for two from the 1-1/2-yard line? An 8-point lead would force the Panthers to chase points even if they had scored an ensuing touchdown. Pederson chose the latter and LeGarrette Blount successfully ran into the end zone. The Panthers never had to choose whether to go for two or not — they twice kicked field goals to trim the Eagles lead to five points and when they did reach the end zone in the fourth quarter Pederson's bold move had taken the option out of Ron Rivera's hands. If the Eagles were up, 27-22, rather than 28-22, the Panthers would have gone for two to trim the lead to three. And if they were successful, they would have had to only kick a field goal to tie the game on their last two possessions. Instead, they had to reach the end zone and never got close. Kudos to Pederson.
4. Carson Wentz is one tough cookie. The stat sheet said that Wentz took only eight hits, but those were only in the pocket. He ran four times and was pounded at the end of at least three. But the quarterback kept getting back up and he kept delivering daggers into the Panthers defense. That kind of resiliency can galvanize a team. Wentz's teammates all watched him run into three Panthers trying to cross the goal line late in the second quarter. They saw him running for his survival after his running backs failed to pick up blitz after blitz in the first half. I think there's a direct correlation between his effort and the effort you saw in the trenches on both sides of the ball and in the way Eagles defenders swarm to the ball. Wentz's numbers weren't particularly eye opening. He completed only 53 percent of his throws. But the Panthers have a top-flight defense. Yes, they were without linebacker Luke Kuechly (concussion) from the middle of the second quarter on. But Wentz made nearly all his 16 completions count — three went for touchdowns, five converted third downs and eight went for 15 yards or more.
5. Carson Wentz. Air Yards. There's a cottage industry of social media pundits who continue to insist that Wentz isn't very good. Last season, they pointed to his "air yards" or his relatively low average of yards per pass attempt. This season, some have tried to credit others on offense for Wentz's success. They have missed the point entirely. Rather than focus on the areas in which he struggles — and he certainly has a few — they refuse to acknowledge all that is already great about the 24-year old. Wentz is only 22 games into his career and he is developing at a rapid rate. He may not be the most accurate thrower right now, but his smarts, his poise in the pocket and his athleticism far overshadow a few early-career issues. I thought Wentz was clearly affected by some of the early hits he took with Halapoulivaati Vaitai at right tackle and Kenjon Barner and company unable to pick up blitzes. He sailed several passes. But unlike last season when he went into a bit of a downward spiral after the Redskins beating, he simply was not deterred Thursday night. And so many of his best moments as the Eagles mounted a comeback came from his subtle movements in the pocket and his downfield throws. I'll have more on Wentz in my Sunday column.
6. The Eagles defense is physical and unrelenting. All three lines of defense brought the hammer. With Fletcher Cox back in the picture — I wrote my newspaper column off his return — the defensive front pounded the Panthers O-line. Newton was sacked only twice, but he hardly ever had a clean pocket and was hit even more than Wentz. Cox, Tim Jernigan, Brandon Graham, Vinny Curry, Chris Long and Derek Barnett were merciless. The linebackers had to cover so much ground against the Panthers' sideline-to-sideline offense, and even when Newton and others got to the second level, Nigel Bradham (10 tackles), Mychal Kendricks (15 tackles) and Jordan Hicks made them pay. Hicks left with an ankle injury, but Bradham mostly took over play-calling duties and Kendricks once again made the most of his increased snaps. And in the secondary, the safeties and cornerbacks tackled well. Sure, they missed a few, but when they did, they almost always had reserves waiting in the wings ready to clean up. The Eagles had trouble containing Newton on some zone reads. Those are tough to defend. But Panthers running backs gain just one yard on the ground. One yard. I couldn't believe how often Carolina offensive coordinator Mike Shula went back to that well on first down. Hey, Mike, the Eagles run defense is stout.
7. Alshon Jeffery may be the biggest disappointment on offense, but he's still been instrumental to the unit's success. Disappointment may be the wrong word, but the Eagles have played only six games and it's not like Jeffery has played poorly. He has 24 catches for 317 yards and is second on the team in both categories. He also has two touchdowns. But Jeffery hasn't exactly been the transcendent receiver the Eagles thought they were getting. He hasn't won many 50-50 balls and he's had a few over 50 percent fall through his hands. Wentz threw him a deep beauty — after he had earlier dropped a 37 yarder in his bucket — that was contested, but should have been caught. Maybe Jeffery needs more time to develop chemistry with his quarterback. Look at how Ertz (two catches for 18 yards — both touchdowns) and Nelson Agholor (four catches for 55 yards and a touchdown) are performing in Year 2. But a lot of their success can be attributed to having Jeffery just on the field. He draws attention as he did on Ertz's first touchdown when the Panthers doubled him.
8. Big V is improved. Julius Peppers' sack/forced fumble wasn't solely on Vaitai. Wentz held the ball a touch too long in the pocket as no one appeared to get open. But he could have done a better job in pass protection there. He had some other slips. I have to watch the coaches film to get a better read on Vaitai's night. But Wentz wasn't sacked by a defensive lineman the rest of the way. One other note: Stefen Wisniewski has officially become the full-time left guard. He played all 62 snaps. Chance Warmack only played five snaps on special teams. It was the correct move.
9. Mack Hollins has a bright future. The rookie receiver keeps getting a taste here, a taste there on offense, and each time Wentz has gone his way, he's delivered. Hollins has five catches on all five targets this season. He caught two big passes on second-half dig routes. The biggest came late in the third quarter when the Eagles faced third-and-16. Deep dig routes take forever to unfold. You need great protection, patience and an arm to make that throw. So credit to the Eagles o-line and Wentz. But Hollins ran a crisp route and went down to get a low throw. Did I mention Hollins is already the Eagles' best blocking receiver, too?