By Matt Citak
The Eagles (4-1) entered the 2017 season as somewhat of an afterthought in the race for the NFC East title. But five games into the year, Philadelphia finds itself sitting atop the division with a 1 1/2-game lead over the Washington Redskins and two-game lead over the Cowboys. The Eagles have been led by the strong play of second-year quarterback Carson Wentz, who is currently sixth in the NFL in passing yards (1,362) and passing touchdowns (10). The Eagles’ offense has been clicking on all cylinders, as it ranks third in the NFL in yards per game with 397.8 yards and is tied for sixth in scoring with 27.4 points per game.
While the offense has found a lot of success, Philadelphia’s defense has endured more of a roller coaster ride in 2017. The Eagles’ rush defense has been superb, surrendering only 62.8 rushing yards per game, which ranks second in the NFL. Its front seven has played solid football all year, but the same cannot be said about the team’s secondary, which is allowing 283.3 passing yards allowed per game, 29th in the league. The Eagles will need their defensive backs to step up Thursday night to grab a win on the road.
Carolina (4-1) also enters this week’s Thursday Night Football contest leading its division. Panthers QB Cam Newton missed training camp and most of the preseason recovering from shoulder surgery, and it showed early on in the season. Newton threw for 566 yards, two touchdowns and four interceptions in Carolina’s first three games, but seems to have shaken off the rust the past two weeks. In the Panthers’ last two victories, Newton has completed 77.4 percent of his passes for 671 yards, six touchdowns, and only one interception, adding 44 yards and a touchdown on the ground.
The Panthers have been aided significantly by the great overall play from its defense. Carolina currently ranks fifth in the league in passing yards allowed (194.2 yards per game) and sixth in rushing yards allowed (79.8 yards per game), while its 18.8 points allowed per game puts them ninth in the NFL. The Panthers have pulled off some impressive victories over the Patriots, Lions, and Bills, and will look to continue their winning ways at Bank of America Stadium on Thursday.
THE NFL TODAY pregame studio show analyst Bill Cowher weighed in on this week’s Thursday Night Football matchup between the Philadelphia Eagles and Carolina Panthers, as well as other upcoming NFL ON CBS action.
Philadelphia Eagles vs. Carolina Panthers – 8:25 PM ET Thursday – CBS and NFL Network
CBS Local Sports: Carson Wentz has looked like a budding star this season. How will the Panthers’ defense be able to limit him on Thursday night?
Bill Cowher: Number one, keeping him in the pocket. He’s a very dangerous guy outside. He likes to improvise, and he likes to go deep. But it starts with making sure they stop LeGarrette Blount. Trying to make him one-dimensional would be the number-one key for this Carolina Panthers defense.
CBS Local Sports: After struggling in the first three weeks, Cam Newton has bounced back over the last two games. Will the Eagles’ poor secondary be able to stop him?
Bill Cowher: The curious thing with Cam is he had no training camp, so he’s just starting to get his legs underneath him. The Philadelphia Eagles have a very good defense. They have a very good front seven. Brandon Graham is a very good edge rusher. Fletcher Cox and Timmy Jernigan can push the pocket. Yes, they have big receivers in Carolina. They have a little bit of speed in Curtis Samuel and Christian McCaffrey. But this will be a very good matchup. Eliminating the big plays will be a big key for the Philadelphia Eagles. But I do like that front seven.
New England Patriots vs. New York Jets – 1:00 PM ET Sunday – CBS
CBS Local Sports: Not many people would have predicted that this game would be a battle for first place in the AFC East. What will the Jets need to do to pull off the upset?
Bill Cowher: The biggest thing for the Jets is not beating themselves. Not turning the football over, don’t give up the big play on defense. It sounds cliche, but right now for the New York Jets, that’s what they’ve been doing. They are winning close games. They are making some plays right now. And they are playing with some confidence. The schedule has been very favorable for them. But the key for them is for Josh McCown [and the rest of the team] to stay away from the negative plays. Bilal Powell has been very good in the running game with Elijah McGuire. Jermaine Kearse, Robby Anderson, and Jeremy Kerley need to make some plays in the passing game. Defensively, they need to make sure they continue to not give up the big plays, particularly in the secondary. Jamal Adams has been a great get for them. They’re playing above what some people expected, but they’re playing sound football. That will always give them a chance.
Pittsburgh Steelers vs. Kansas City Chiefs – 4:25 PM ET Sunday – CBS
CBS Local Sports: Alex Smith has been superb through the first five games. Can he continue this MVP-type campaign throughout the entire season?
Bill Cowher: He needs to continue to make the good decisions that he’s making right now. The decision-making has been excellent. He has a lot of playmakers around him. Kareem Hunt, the rookie, has had a fantastic year, and Tyreek Hill is one of the fastest guys in the National Football League. He can [continue his stellar play], and if they stay healthy on the offensive line, this will be a very, very potent offense, particularly with the tight end, Travis Kelce. He has a lot of weapons. He is making very good decisions, and that will continue to be the key.
CBS Local Sports: The Steelers offense has under-performed thus far in 2017. How do they get back on track?
Bill Cowher: It’s not trying to keep everybody happy, but just trying to attack the opposing defense. Some weeks that might be throwing the ball 35-40 times. Some weeks that might be running the ball 35-40 times. It’s not worrying about keeping people happy. The more important thing right now is attacking the weakness of the defense that you play that particular weekend, because you have too many weapons to worry about trying to keep everyone happy. You’ll never be able to do it. Just let Ben [Roethlisberger] be Ben and take what the defense is giving you.
Matt Citak is a producer for CBS Local Sports and a proud Vanderbilt alum. Follow him on Twitter or send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.