Washington (AFP) - The NFL’s top third-down passer and one of its stars coming off a controversy meet in a critical short-rest matchup Thursday when the Philadelphia Eagles visit the Carolina Panthers.
Both division leaders are 4-1 after triumphs Sunday, the Eagles routing Arizona 34-7 while the Panthers edged Detroit 27-24, and only the Kansas City Chiefs (5-0) have a better record this season.
But they face each other after only three days off in a what could prove a key test between top National Conference playoff contenders.
“We’re finding ways to keep getting better. Good for our morale as a whole,” said Panthers quarterback Cam Newton, who is trying to move past a sexist remark he made to a woman reporter last week, one for which he later apologized.
Eagles coach Doug Pederson admits the team has barely been able to celebrate a lopsided victory before having to focus upon a major threat in the host Panthers.
“You don’t really have time to dwell on your past success,” Pederson said. “I look at it as the maturity of the football team, the experience of the football team. They know what it takes to stay focused. They know what it takes to stay grounded. It’s my job to keep them grounded, keep them focused.”
Carolina has found a groove after victories at New England and Detroit, with coach Ron Rivera hoping the best is yet to come for the Panthers as Newton finds top form after off-season shoulder surgery.
“We went on a rough patch early on this year because he was still working himself back into football shape,” Rivera said. “Now he’s starting to feel better and better and stronger and stronger. He’s getting his arm strength back. Now we see it and we know he can throw. I think it will open up more and more things.”
Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz has completed an NFL-best 37 third-down passes and managed 11 yards per attempt on third down along with six third-down touchdown tosses.
“Offensively, we can be dynamic. We can be explosive,” Wentz said. “We’ve got to keep making plays.”
Keeping rivals guessing by balancing run threats and passing attacks has been vital, Wentz said.
“I think that’s the big reason we’ve been able to be so successful,” Wentz said. “We’re able to move the ball in the air. We’ve been able to move the ball on the ground. I think that’s what makes us tough to defend at times.”
With offensive tackle Lane Johnson in the NFL concussion protocol, it could mean the Eagles will move Halapoulivaati Vaitai, a US blocker of Tongan descent, into the lineup.
“Big V stepped up,” Wentz said of Vaitai. “Big V had tons of valuable experience last year. We feel solid. If Lane is not ready to go, we feel Big V will be ready.”
Wentz threw for four touchdowns for the first time in his career Sunday against the Cardinals and looks forward to how he handles the Carolina challenge with less than usual preparation time.
“It’s coming quick,” he said. “All the preparation, everything speeds up.
“We’re built differently. We know what to expect. We’re hungry. We’re never going to get too high after a win. We just have to keep plugging along.”