Simmering start might hit Bowl-ing point for Birds
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.
The Eagles’ Carson Wentz (11) looks to pass against the Carolina Panthers in the second half in Charlotte, N.C., Thursday night.