CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The Philadelphia Eagles' legitimacy as contenders was in question thanks to the quality of their opponents over the first quarter-plus of the season.
They had won four of their first five games heading into Thursday night. But three of those victories came against the New York Giants, Los Angeles Chargers and Arizona Cardinals, who have a combined record of 3-12.
Idle until Monday, Oct. 23, when Philadelphia hosts the Washington Redskins, the Eagles get to kick back for the weekend and enjoy their view from the top while the rest of the conference works to catch up.
"It's a tremendous testament to those players in that locker room," said head coach Doug Pederson. "I told them tonight after the game I haven't been part of a team that has battled through so much injury and adversity to be in the first month of the season, month and a half of the season, the resiliency of the football team started to show last year at the end of the year. They're learning from last year. They're learning how to finish games and just the overall consistency from the leaders leading this football team. They are sacrificing each other -- themselves for the football team. It's a fun thing to watch."
The Eagles’ previous four victories came against teams that are a combined 5-14, none of which currently has a winning record. The 5-0 Kansas City Chiefs beat the Eagles. On Thursday, the Eagles erased doubts they may be a product of a favorable schedule with a gutty performance against a physical, first-place Panthers team coming off wins over the New England Patriots and Detroit Lions.
Operating without right tackle Lane Johnson (concussion) and third-down back Wendell Smallwood, Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz was hit often (three sacks, eight QB hits) and was a bit erratic early as the offense fought to find a rhythm. But the second-year signal-caller came up with some huge third-down throws -- a season-long trend -- and finished with three touchdowns to zero interceptions in a big-time showing on the national stage. Tight end Zach Ertz was on the receiving end of two of those scores. He now has four touchdowns on the season, matching a career high.
Eagles defensive tackle Fletcher Cox returned after missing the previous two games with a calf injury and made his presence felt. He bulldozed through guard Trai Turner to hit Panthers QB Cam Newton midthrow and force a first-half interception that led to six points. Cox finished with two quarterback hits and a half-sack.
Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz and his players had their hands full with the Panthers' multifaceted attack featuring Newton, rookie running back Christian McCaffrey and a pair of imposing receivers in Kelvin Benjamin and Devin Funchess. The key was generating three takeaways, all Newton interceptions.
The Eagles were playing with house money, in a sense. Well-positioned in an adversity-struck NFC East, a loss in Carolina wouldn’t have been viewed as a crusher. In pulling out a victory, the chip pile grows, as do expectations for what this team can do in Year 2 of the coach Doug Pederson and Wentz era.
"It feels great," said Wentz. "That was a hard-fought win, on the road, on a short week, on prime-time TV. So to come out of it 5-1 and to know that we're at home the next couple of weeks, that's big for us."