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Thursday Night Preview: Will the Eagles or Panthers Move to 5-1?

Thursday night has historically treated us to some poor football, but for the second week in a row, we have a matchup featuring two very good teams.

The Philadelphia Eagles rank 6th in our current power rankings and the Carolina Panthers are a little further back at 12th, but this is a clash of 4-1 squads.

It's still early in the season and both teams have put themselves in a favorable position moving forward, but this is an important matchup. Why is that? Well, according to FiveThirtyEight, the odds of making the playoffs for a 5-1 squad (81%) is much better than a team that is 4-2 (60%).

So, who can come out on top in this key tilt? Let's dive in and find out.

Quarterback Breakdown

After getting off to a bit of a slow start, Cam Newton has exploded over the last two games for the Panthers to the tune of 671 passing yards and 6 touchdowns.

Of the 32 quarterbacks with 100 or more drop backs, Newton ranks fifth in Passing Net Expected Points (NEP) per drop back (0.23). In terms of Passing Success Rate -- the percentage of drop backs which result in a positive NEP -- his 46.88% mark is 14th.

On the other side of this matchup is second-year man Carson Wentz, who has been fantastic under center -- he ranks sixth in Passing NEP per drop back (0.23) and seventh in Passing Success Rate (48.42%).

With both signal-callers playing well, it looks like we have a push at this position. Does either team have an edge in the running game?

Running Back Play

Jonathan Stewart and rookie Christian McCaffrey have been largely ineffective for Carolina this season when we look at the 44 running backs with 30-plus carries.

Stewart has received most of the work (77 carries so far), but hasn't done much with them -- he's racked up a -0.19 Rushing NEP per play. McCaffrey has just 34 carries and has just been slightly better with a Rushing NEP per play of -0.15. If we look to their roles in the passing game, though, McCaffrey is the superior option. He leads all runners with 36 targets and 27 receptions.

LeGarrette Blount seems to have retaken the role of lead back in the Eagles backfield, carrying the ball 30 times for 220 yards over the last two weeks. He's been rather efficient this year, too, ranking fourth in Rushing NEP per carry at 0.10.

However, that is not suggest that there hasn't been plenty of work for the other Philly backs -- in a road win over the Los Angeles Chargers, Wendell Smallwood received 13 touches while Corey Clement toted the rock 10 times. With Smallwood out of the mix last week, Clement grabbed 7 more carries and caught a 22-yard pass out of the backfield.

With backfield situations that could see a lot of time shares this week, can either defense make a big difference in this matchup?

Defensive Matchup

The Panthers rank 9th overall as a defensive unit, checking in 10th against the pass and 11th against the run, per our metrics. The Eagles, meanwhile, are 13th against the pass and 12th against the run.

In looking at Football Outsiders' adjusted sack rate, which displays sacks (plus intentional grounding penalties) per pass attempt adjusted for down, distance, and opponent, the Panthers have been excellent. They have already racked up 17 sacks to their name and rank fifth in Adjusted Sack Rate (9.0%). The Eagles have only sacked the opposing quarterback 12 times on their way to an an Adjusted Sack Rate of 6.3%, ranking 25th.

Historical Comparisons

According to our models, there are seven contests that correlate greater than 90% of the time with this game, but the one most like this matchup was a November 2008 tilt between the Tennessee Titans and the Chicago Bears.

This contest featured a white-hot Titans squad looking to run their record to 9-0, which they did after squeaking by with a 21-14 road win. The duo of Lendale White and Chris Johnson couldn't get much going on the ground, but Tennessee finally pulled away late thanks to a two-yard scamper from White in the third quarter.

In this matchup, the road Titans represent the Eagles, leading to a cover of the spread, along with the under hitting.

Game Projection

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