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Eagles-Panthers Thoughts: Top-10 Offense Meets Top-10 Defense

[CSNPhily] Eagles-Panthers thoughts: Top-10 offense meets top-10 defense

Eagles (4-1) at Panthers (4-1)
8:25 p.m. on CBS
Eagles +3

Thursday Night Football is often a lopsided or uninteresting matchup, but it might be the game of the week with the Eagles facing the Carolina Panthers in Charlotte.

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It's a battle between teams with 4-1 records, and the ramifications could be felt when it comes time to determine playoff seeding in January. The Eagles hit the road as winners of three straight, having blown the doors off of the Cardinals most recently, while the Panthers have hung on for back-to-back victories over the defending world champion Patriots and Lions.

One look at the standings should tell everybody how meaningful this game is. With the Packers the only other team at 4-1 in the conference, the outcome of this contest will outline a hierarchy in the NFC for weeks, possibly months to come (see predictions).

Home-field advantage?
While both sides must play on the same amount of rest, there's no question Thursday games are more taxing on the away team once you throw travel into the mix. That being said, staying home may not mean the distinct and sizable advantage many imagine.

So far this season, away teams have a 3-1 record on Thursday Night Football broadcasts, which obviously isn't much of a sample size. Yet, even looking back the past few years, the difference isn't glaring. Since 2013, visitors are 26-33 on TNF.

In other words, this isn't entirely unlike any other road game the Eagles will play this season. At least, the short week isn't going to be a great excuse for a lackluster effort just because they're making the trip.

Game-time decisions
Both defensive tackle Fletcher Cox (calf) and running back Wendell Smallwood (knee) are making the trip for the Eagles, but we won't know if either player is suiting up until 90 minutes before kickoff. However, if practices this week were any indication, we may have some clues as to who can go and who cannot.

Cox was listed as a full participant the last two days in practice, and seemed to be moving quite well in the little bit reporters were allowed to watch on Tuesday. Granted, these have not been the most strenuous practices with the short week, but barring any setbacks, it certainly appears the two-time Pro Bowl selection is on track to return after missing two games.

To the contrary, Smallwood would be something of a surprise. He hasn't practiced at all this week, and it seems unlikely the swelling in his knee is suddenly going to diminish before Thursday night. With Corey Clement and Kenjon Barner filling in nicely against the Cardinals, there doesn't appear to be any reason to rush Smallwood back, either.

Eagles coach Doug Pederson insists Cox and Smallwood are game-time decisions. Based on what the work they've put in, that looks a lot like a smokescreen.

Unstoppable force, immovable object
With or without Smallwood, the offense has been humming. The Eagles rank third in total yards (397.8), fifth in rushing (138.8), ninth in passing (259.0) and sixth in scoring (27.4). Perhaps most telling of all about the unit's success, the team is No. 1 in the NFL by far with an average time of possession of 35 minutes, 32 seconds.

Then again, the Eagles have not yet seen a defense as stout across the board as the Panthers'.

Like the Eagles' offense, Carolina's defense falls in the top 10 in every major category - third in total yards (274.0), seventh against the run (79.8), fifth versus the pass (194.2) and eighth in points surrendered (18.8). Simply put, nothing is coming easy against this crew.

We're about to see just how far Pederson and quarterback Carson Wentz have really come in their second season in their respective positions.

Key matchup: Zach Ertz vs. Panthers linebackers
Last week, the Cardinals had no answer for Zach Ertz. Frankly, no team has. Ertz enters Week 6 ranked tied for third with 32 receptions and seventh with 387 yards. That's not just among tight ends. That's the entire league.

The Eagles are getting more mileage than ever out of Ertz, but if there is any team equipped to stop him, it may be the Panthers. Obviously, this is a tremendous, well-rounded defense overall, but the linebacker corps led by four-time Pro Bowl selection Luke Kuechly is capable of slowing or shutting down the best tight ends in the league.

In two previous games against the Panthers, Ertz recorded a combined six receptions for 80 yards with no touchdowns. Since then, he's become Wentz's go-to target, but with Kuechly and a collection of rangy linebackers patrolling the middle of the field, that safety valve may not come open at times.

Cam's toys
Cam Newton tends to get all of the attention, and with good reason. The former NFL Most Valuable Player can beat opponents throwing or running the football. Even eighth overall draft pick Christian McCaffrey has become the focus of defenses as he's quickly emerged as a dynamic weapon out of the backfield for Carolina's offense.

Yet, what maybe hasn't been getting the attention it's deserved during the short week is just how good Newton's wide receivers have become. Kelvin Benjamin is in his fourth season, so he's not exactly taking the world by surprise. The emergence of Devin Funchess, on the other hand, is beginning to pose a real problem for opposing secondaries.

A first-round pick in 2015, Funchess largely underwhelmed during his first two NFL seasons. Yet, all of a sudden, he has 24 receptions for 269 yards in 2017, with three touchdowns in the last two weeks.

Benjamin is 6-foot-5, 245 pounds. Funchess is 6-4, 225. And at 6-2, rookie cornerback Rasul Douglas is the only Eagles defensive back that measures taller than 6-0.

For a thin, beat-up Eagles secondary that still ranks 29th against the pass, Benjamin and Funchess would pose a problem regardless. With the defense keying on stopping Newton and McCaffrey, two towering receivers can do some serious damage on the outside.

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