Last season, when the Philadelphia Eagles came to Charlotte and outlasted the Carolina Panthers 28-23, it was a sloppy, turnover-filled contest that could’ve gone either way.
Only, it didn’t.
The Eagles intercepted Panthers quarterback Cam Newton three times — not to mention a fourth pick that was overturned — and converted those turnovers into immediate points on short fields. Two of Philadelphia quarterback Carson Wentz’ three touchdown tosses came on drives that started in the red zone, about as close to free points as an offense can ask for.
And while that victory ultimately propelled the Eagles to the franchise’s first-ever Super Bowl victory, now the Panthers are hoping for a reverse outcome —and trajectory — when the two teams meet again on Sunday in Philadelphia.
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“The entire time came down basically to the last series or two,” Eagles coach Doug Pederson said of last year’s game. “I know Carolina had an opportunity there to win it late, and (we were) fortunate again to make a couple of plays down the stretch and pull out a victory, but I think we’re gonna see the same things this Sunday.”
Obviously there will be some differences — receiver Torrey Smith, you know, switched sides — but Pederson’s point still stands. The essence of both teams is still the same: mobile, MVP-caliber quarterbacks supplemented by ferocious, attacking defenses.
About those quarterbacks: Wentz, who missed the first two games this season recovering from a torn ACL, has resumed his MVP pace from last season. Through four games, he’s completing 68.4 percent of his passes for nearly 1,200 yards, with eight touchdowns and one interception.
“He looks like the same guy, if not better. And the crazy thing is, he still runs and moves and does whatever he can to make things work,” Panthers coach Ron Rivera said of Wentz. “He plays to a full tilt.”
Key to limiting Wentz
Limiting Wentz’s effectiveness will be paramount to any Carolina victory, if there’s anything to be gleaned from last year’s contest. Wentz had 222 yards passing and three scores in that game, even with Thomas Davis, James Bradberry, and Julius Peppers sacking him once each.
The key to limiting Wentz, Rivera said Wednesday, is putting him in unfavorable down-and-distances — which, naturally, are favorable for Carolina’s stable of pass-rushers.
And on the flip side, there’s Philadelphia’s defense against Newton and Co. The Eagles have allowed the fifth-fewest points per game in the NFL this year, but their takeaway margin hasn’t been what it was during last year’s Super Bowl run. The Eagles have four interceptions in six games (compared with seven for the Panthers in five games) to go along with three forced fumbles. That’s... not a defense that takes the ball away with any level of consistency.
And it should bode well for Newton, who has three interceptions in the past two weeks.
But turnovers might not tell the full story of Philly’s defense.
“I think they’re better than they were last year,” Newton said. “Just the depth that they have and the explosiveness on the defensive side of the football is something we will have to tame. Those guys get after the quarterback, get after the running game — those are all things that we try to pride ourselves on doing.”
Protecting the football
Pederson said one of the things he’s been most impressed with from Newton this season, especially given the addition of Norv Turner at offensive coordinator, are the strides he’s made in protecting the football.
“He’s been able to just take care of the ball, and that’s probably been the biggest thing,” Pederson said. “From a quarterback’s position, it’s just don’t be reckless, don’t be careless. Be smart with the football. Know when you’ve got to pull it down and run it, and know when you have to throw it away, and that’s what you’re seeing.”
So in a matchup of two young, mobile passers, going against two defenses with something to prove, perhaps there is one major takeaway both sides can learn from last year’s contest:
The importance of turnovers, and not having them.
“We had a little bit of it last week — you can’t turn the ball over,” Rivera said. “We turned the ball over twice against them last year in the red zone, so we’ve just got to be able to protect the football and play our game.”