Scott Fowler

Carolina Panthers run game vs. Eagles D will tell the tale

Jonathan Stewart (28) and the Carolina Panthers run game against a stout Philadelphia defense might be the key Sunday.
Jonathan Stewart (28) and the Carolina Panthers run game against a stout Philadelphia defense might be the key Sunday. dtfoster@charlotteobserver.com

When I asked Cris Collinsworth this week what matchup he thought would make the difference in Sunday night’s Eagles-Panthers game, he didn’t hesitate. Collinsworth said Carolina’s run game vs. Philadelphia’s defense would be the biggest key.

Carolina is third in the NFL in rushing offense, averaging 132.8 yards per game. “This is a physical bunch, a chippy bunch that plays with an edge,” Collinsworth said of the Panthers. “Jonathan Stewart is the running back now. He’s heavy. Cam Newton’s heavy. Mike Tolbert’s heavy. You don’t go, ‘Oh boy, we get to play Carolina this week.’ You go, ‘OK, let’s put on the big boy pads.’”

Philadelphia, though, is No. 8 in the NFL in rushing defense, allowing only 94.2 yards per game. Collinsworth in particular praised the Eagles’ defensive front for its stout play. The Eagles haven’t allowed a 100-yard rusher for 18 straight games. They also have allowed only one rushing TD all year (tied for No. 1 in the NFL).

Carolina will undoubtedly try to ground and pound, as it always does on offense, but what it really could use Sunday night is a big play.

In 164 rushing attempts so far this season, do you know how many times the Panthers have had a gain of at least 25 yards?

Zero.

The Panthers are one of only five NFL teams without a run of 25-plus yards this season.

▪  The Eagles have two superb safeties – Nos. 26 and 27 – who play far more man-to-man then you usually see. Cam Newton will have to always know where Walter Thurmond and Malcolm Jenkins are.

▪  Dating from his days with New Orleans, Darren Sproles has caused many a nightmare for the Panthers. Given how small he is in NFL terms, would it surprise you to know Sproles weighed more than 10 pounds at birth?

▪  All right, prediction time. I have taken a good bit of good-natured heat for picking against the Panthers last week for the first time all season, along with some admonitions to do so again this week to ensure reverse luck for Carolina – or something like that.

In any case, I’m 4-1 picking the games of the 5-0 Panthers this season.

The last Carolina-Philadelphia game was so lopsided – with the Eagles winning 45-21 in 2014 – that announcers Jon Gruden and Mike Tirico famously loaded up a blender and made a smoothie on-air. This one won’t be like that, but I think the Eagles (3-3) are a sleeping giant who have just enough to upset the Panthers.

My prediction: Philadelphia 23, Carolina 19.

Fowler: sfowler@charlotteobserver.com; Twitter: @scott_fowler

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