The NFL has had its share of Thursday night duds, with the short week of preparation resulting in sloppy play and ugly football not fit for prime time.
Sometimes matchups that looked good in April have lost their appeal by October, with some combination of injuries, slow starts or poor quarterback play dragging down one side or the other.
But this Week 6 clash between the Carolina Panthers and Philadelphia Eagles feels different.
The Panthers and Eagles – along with Green Bay – are tied for the NFC’s best record at 4-1 and could see each other again in January if they continue to stack up wins.
Both have quarterbacks coming off sizzling performances in big victories last week, playmakers on both sides of the ball and respected coaches with ties to current Chiefs and former Eagles coach Andy Reid.
It all adds up to a potential playoff preview at Bank of America Stadium.
“You want to face a team when they’re at their best and I feel that’s what Philly is right now,” Panthers veteran linebacker Thomas Davis said. “They’re playing some really good football.
“This is a fight for essentially the No. 1 seed right now in the NFC. We understand that. I’m pretty sure they understand that. We’ve just got to make sure we go out and protect our home.”
In the next breath, Davis reminded reporters that no one makes the playoffs in October.
And a little later, the guy in the next locker stall offered a sobering perspective on early-season giddiness.
Captain Munnerlyn, the Panthers’ nickel back, was in Minnesota last season when the Vikings started 5-0 after trading for quarterback Sam Bradford to replace the injured Teddy Bridgewater.
But Minnesota lost four in a row after its bye week, stumbled to an 8-8 record and missed the playoffs.
The team that started the Vikings on their post-bye freefall? The Eagles, who beat Minnesota 21-10 and sacked Bradford, their former quarterback, six times and forced him into three turnovers.
“Last year we were on the top of the world. I was like, ‘Man, going into the bye we’re 5-0,’” Munnerlyn said. “Coach (Mike Zimmer) gave us a little break. We came back from the bye and we did not look the same. We weren’t the same team.”
Newton’s resurgence key
The Panthers haven’t looked like the same team that lost to New Orleans 18 days ago in their most recent home game.
The biggest change has been the play of quarterback Cam Newton, who followed one of the worst passing performances of his career against the Saints with two gems in the wins at New England and Detroit.
Newton put up the first back-to-back 300-yard passing efforts since the first two games of his career, and joined Tom Brady as the only quarterbacks to post 130-plus passer ratings in consecutive games this season.
Questions about the strength in Newton’s surgically repaired shoulder have stopped, replaced by comparisons to Newton’s MVP season of 2015.
“To be honest, 2015 is 2015,” Newton said this week. “I’m just so focused on trying to be 1-0 by the end of Thursday night.”
Newton was effective running against the Patriots, but it’s his passing that has the attention of Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz, the former Lions coach.
“The thing that you have to take into account is he can sit back there and rip it out of the pocket. This is not school-yard football,” Schwartz told Philadelphia reporters. “He can sit back there and throw as pure as anybody in the NFL. But he also has the ability when it does break down to be able to create.”
Wentz, too, flying high
Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz also enters Thursday’s matchup coming off one of the best games of his career. Wentz, in his second year from North Dakota State, hit career highs with four touchdown passes and a 128.3 passer rating in a 34-7 victory last week vs. Arizona.
Wentz does a nice job moving in the pocket to keep plays alive, although the Panthers’ defense – which had six sacks on the Lions’ Matthew Stafford – will try to rattle him.
“He’s a playmaker, so we’ve got to get pressure early and often like we did on Stafford,” defensive end Wes Horton said. “A young quarterback, if he’s getting hit often, that could throw off his game.”
The Eagles will be without right tackle Lane Johnson, who is in the concussion protocol. Halapoulivaati Vaitai is expected to start in his place.
Pro Bowl center Ryan Kalil will miss his fifth game with a neck injury for Carolina, and tight end Greg Olsen and safety Kurt Coleman remain out. But the Panthers are relatively healthy considering the quick turnaround for a game that could have playoff implications down the road.
“Any team in the NFC that’s 4-1 you’ve got to treat almost like a playoff team because it could be a team you could see later on in the postseason,” Horton said. “We’re definitely taking it very serious.
“This is a big stretch for us. The next four or five games are going to be real crucial. We definitely have a lot of confidence coming off those last two games. We’re excited. We’re ready for the challenge and we’re not backing down to nobody.”