The last time the Philadelphia Eagles played the Carolina Panthers was one of the most lopsided games of head coach Chip Kelly's tenure. Like this year, the game was on Sunday night, but unlike last year, the Eagles will be traveling to Carolina to play one of the league's five undefeated teams.
The Panthers do a lot of things well, and quarterback Cam Newton has played better so far this season. The Eagles, meanwhile, have struggled to put together a complete game and still seem to be growing into their identity as a defensive football team.
Fortunately for Philadelphia, the lessons they've learned from their three wins this season provide a blueprint for putting the first blemish on Carolina's schedule, and for improving to better than .500 for the first time all year.
Playing a good rush defense? Run anyway.
In what is probably the strangest statistical anomaly of the young Eagles season, the Birds as a team have run for 100 yards three times this season. All three were wins, and two of the three came against top-ranked rush defenses. In Week 3, the Jets rush defense was ranked among the league's best, and last week's Giants team was giving up the fewest rushing yards in the league.
Both games had a few interesting things to note: both were against New York teams (okay, that's not especially interesting, but you can totally still use it as a reason to gloat), and while both games featured a 100-yard rusher, they were different in each game. Ryan Mathews hit the century mark first against the Jets, and DeMarco Murray got his against the Giants.
But what might be most interesting is the timing aspect. The Eagles had struggled to run the ball in Weeks 1 and 2, but finally had some success in Week 3. But then right guard Andrew Gardner got hurt in New York, and it was back to the drawing board. Then - poof - three weeks later, the Eagles have another 100-yard rusher. Maybe three weeks is the magic number for offensive line cohesion. Somebody tell Chip - it's a #sportsscience breakthrough!
Keep the Panthers below seven points in the first half
The Eagles are 3-1 this season when the opposing team scores seven or fewer points in the first half of play. That seems like the ultimate "no duh" stat, but it's relevant in a year in which the offense has scored an average of 15.6 first-half points per win. Unless Bradford vastly improves his play in the latter half of the season, the Eagles will win games on defense. And that's fine, because the offense has shown that it can still create big plays at a moment's notice.
But this is especially important because of the Panthers offense's struggles in the first half. So far, Carolina has scored more than 10 points in the first half just once, and that was against the Buccaneers. In total, they have 54 first half points this year - exactly the same number the Eagles have scored. The only difference? Carolina's only played five games.
Think about that for a second: in one fewer game, the Panthers have scored the same number of first-half points as a team that has been shut out in the first half of not one, but two games. I'm not sure on which team that reflects more poorly.
Make Cam Newton turn it over
After last week's win, safety Malcolm Jenkins told reporters that the defense goes into each game with the goal of forcing three turnovers. And while they haven't hit that in every game, they've come pretty close. Through six games, the Eagles have eight interceptions to go with three fumble recoveries. In the Eagles' three wins, they've forced at least three turnovers, and have four takeaways in two of those games.
Last time the Eagles played Carolina, Cam Newton was a turnover machine. He threw for two touchdowns, but also three picks, fumbled twice and lost one of them. He was also sacked a whopping nine times.
Cam's been better in that area this year. To date, the Panthers have only given the ball away five times (four interceptions and a fumble), which ties them for the league's best turnover differential at +6. However, the Panthers haven't yet faced a defense as opportunistic as the Eagles. All of Carolina's wins have come against teams with fewer than 10 turnovers on the season.
The Eagles have proven in the past that they have the horses up front to get to Newton, and have also shown that they can take the ball away when given the opportunity. It will definitely be worth seeing if they can do it again on Sunday night.