Sim­mer­ing start might hit Bowl-ing point for Birds

Daily Times (Primos, PA) - - SPORTS - Bob Grotz Colum­nist To con­tact Bob Grotz, email bgrotz@21st-cen­tu­ry­media. com; fol­low him on Twit­ter @BobGrotz.

Af­ter the Eagles se­cured a 28-23 win over the Carolina Pan­thers Thurs­day, you’re al­lowed to start day-dream­ing about Min­neapo­lis.

Yes, the site of Su­per Bowl LII.

Imag­ine Doug Ped­er­son’s open­ing news con­fer­ence, the first tough ques­tion draw­ing the re­sponse, “Uh, you said it, not me.”

The last time the Eagles started 5-1, they went 10-6 but didn’t reach the play­offs. That was un­der Chip Kelly, not Andy Reid.

If you dig nos­tal­gia, close your eyes and think about Ped­er­son-Reid II at U.S. Bank Sta­dium. The Eagles have the best record in the NFC, the Kansas City Chiefs (5-0) the best mark in pro foot­ball. A re­match would be in­ter­est­ing, pro­vid­ing the Eagles have a healthy Lane John­son.

The score Thurs­day night was de­cep­tive. Eagles quar­ter­back Car­son Wentz was un­flap­pable af­ter the pro­tec­tion prob­lems cre­ated by the ab­sence of in­jured tackle John­son were re­solved. And yes, it didn’t hurt when Pan­thers star line­backer Luke Kuechly, who blitzed early and of­ten, was knocked out of the game with a con­cus­sion late in the first half.

Wentz threw two touch­down passes to Zach Ertz, an­other to Nel­son Agholor and took good care of the ball ex­cept for a fum­ble caused when Hal Vaitai, the re­place­ment at right tackle, was over­pow­ered by Julius Pep­pers on the first se­ries.

Pan­thers coun­ter­part Cam New­ton was in­ter­cepted by Ra­sul Dou­glas, Pa­trick Robin­son and Jalen Mills. All but one of those balls was poorly thrown. New­ton’s worm-burner knuck­le­ball on fourth down sealed the fate of the Pan­thers (4-2), the first win­ning team the Eagles have beaten this sea­son.

For a while Thurs­day, Wentz was get­ting spiked by the Pan­thers pass rush and a se­ries of ex­otic blitzes. The ab­sence of John­son showed on the fifth play when Pep­pers bull-rushed Vaitai, who held him and grabbed Wentz’s arm to force a fum­ble the Pan­thers re­cov­ered.

On the next se­ries the Pan­thers sacked Wentz on a cor­ner blitz.

But Wentz stayed the course and com­pleted 5 of 6 passes to set up a 50-yard Jake El­liott field goal for a 3-0 lead. The tone had been set. The Pan­thers kept com­ing af­ter Wentz with cor­ner blitzes, line­backer blitzes and a straight pass rush. The Eagles made them­selves one-di­men­sional help­ing Vaitai with LeGar­rette Blount, Trey Bur­ton and an as­sort­ment of peo­ple who all fig­ured in the at­tack.

The third sack of Wentz, by line­backer Thomas Davis, al­most got Wentz’s throw­ing arm pinned be­neath him.

Mean­while, New­ton got loose and be­fore you knew it, he was do­ing his Su­per­man cel­e­bra­tion af­ter weav­ing in and out of the Eagles on a 16-yard quar­ter­back draw, giv­ing the Pan­thers a 10-3 lead with 10:41 left in the first half. The tally was set up by the sack and a 25-yard punt re­turn by McCaf­frey.

TV an­a­lyst Tony Romo, the for­mer Cow­boys quar­ter­back, could see the blitzes com­ing. And he got ex­cited when the Pan­thers showed them.

Wentz was tak­ing hits when he wasn’t sacked. Kuechly got him pretty good com­ing up the mid­dle and Davis from the edge.

In the mid­dle of that de­fen­sive tackle Fletcher Cox showed up. In his first game in three weeks, Cox walked 310-pound Pro Bowl guard Trai Turner straight back into New­ton, then hit the quar­ter­back’s hand to force a weak popup Dou­glas pulled in for his sec­ond in­ter­cep­tion of the sea­son.

It took the Eagles seven plays to go 12 yards af­ter the in­ter­cep­tion, but it was worth it.

Wentz, af­ter a headon col­li­sion with a safety, loaded up and threw a one­yard scor­ing pass to Ertz to knot the score at 10 with 2:37 left in the first half.

Al­most as crit­i­cal as the touch­down was the ca­su­alty it caused. Eagles guard Brandon Brooks pan­caked Kuechly, crash­ing into the neck and shoul­der of the Pro Bowl line­backer. He wasn’t on the field for the last four plays of the pos­ses­sion.

New­ton didn’t ex­actly look like the more pol­ished quar­ter­back in the first half. He didn’t feel or see the pres­sure right up the mid­dle on the in­ter­cep­tion. And his two-minute drill was so weak he and the Pan­thers were booed on their way off the the in­ter­mis­sion.

When Pa­trick Robin­son in­ter­cepted a bob­bled screen pass by the Pan­thers at the 17-yard line of the Pan­thers, Wentz, un­der duress, fired an­other scor­ing pass to Ertz to give the Eagles the lead.

Then Ped­er­son ran out on the field to tell ref­eree Peter Morelli that he wanted to go for two points af­ter a Pan­thers penalty. That af­ter the Eagles suc­cess­fully kicked the PAT. Blount got the two points for an 18-10 Eagles lead.

The Pan­thers made a run when New­ton fired a one­yard pass to Chris­tian McCaf­frey with 8:07 left. That set up a near photo fin­ish. Did you no­tice … ■ Eagles line­backer Jordan Hicks (an­kle) and de­fen­sive end Brandon Graham (shoul­der) ex­ited with in­juries?

■ Doug Ped­er­son call a time­out right be­fore Wentz con­verted a third down deep in Eagles ter­ri­tory in the sec­ond quar­ter? Ic­ing the de­fense, we guess.

■ Peter Morelli, the ref­eree, get­ting a mouth­ful from Ped­er­son? The Eagles’ coach ran al­most to the hashes af­ter Morelli said the Eagles would take a Pan­thers PAT penalty on the en­su­ing kick­off. Ped­er­son had the suc­cess­ful kick taken off the board. He lined the of­fense up at the one-yard line and called a hand­off Blount turned into two points and an 1810 field for lead.

■ Ertz split­ting blood af­ter his sec­ond TD catch, early in the sec­ond half? The grab gave the Eagles a 17-10 lead. Ertz leads the team with four TD catches.

■ Robin­son’s gamechang­ers play? The Eagles’ veteran re­cov­ered a fum­ble that punt re­turner Ken­jon Barner lost sight of in a sea of bod­ies in the sec­ond quar­ter. Then he picked off a screen pass bob­bled by Jonathan Ste­wart.

■ Romo be­ing crit­i­cal of Blount’s blitz pickup in the first quar­ter? Romo called it a “poor ef­fort.”

■ The care­less penal­ties on the Eagles? In the first quar­ter alone, Blount was flagged for block­ing af­ter the play, and Trey Bur­ton for be­ing the in­el­i­gi­ble man down­field on a punt?

■ Eagles corner­back Mills had a tough night. He com­mit­ted a 21-yard pass in­ter­fer­ence penalty in the first half and a 40-yard in­ter­fer­ence penalty in the third quar­ter that wiped out an in­ter­cep­tion.

■ The Pan­thers al­most shut­down their blitz pack­age when Kuechly ex­ited with a con­cus­sion late in the first half.

■ El­liott’s hot streak con­tinue? He made his first two field goals giv­ing him 10 straight makes, and 12 of 14 on the sea­son.

BOB LEVERONE — THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

The Eagles’ Car­son Wentz (11) looks to pass against the Carolina Pan­thers in the sec­ond half in Char­lotte, N.C., Thurs­day night.

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