- David Newton, ESPN Staff Writer
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The Panthers are 3-5-1, having gone 1-5-1 over their past seven games. Their best -- and likely only -- chance to return to the playoffs is to win the NFC South.
They trail division-leader New Orleans after a 28-10 loss to the Saints 12 days ago. With a December 7 game at New Orleans looming, they can’t afford to fall further behind.
Here are three things to keep an eye on as the Panthers face NFC East-leading Philadelphia (6-2) on Monday night at Lincoln Financial Field:
Fast-break football: The Eagles wear defenses down with their up-tempo offense. It is especially hard on linemen that have to shuffle in and out at speeds they’re not accustomed to. If Philadelphia gets into a rhythm where linemen get stuck on the field for six or more plays it typically spells trouble. It is especially a precarious situation for the Panthers since they rotate so many linemen on a normal basis, particularly at end where Wes Horton is considered the run-stopper and Mario Addison the pass-rusher. The key will be holding the Eagles to minimum yardage on first and second down so they can’t hit you with those quick runs on third and short. That starting quarterback Nick Foles (collarbone) is out and Mark Sanchez is in could be a factor. Sanchez is prone to turnovers, having thrown more interceptions than touchdowns for his career. He had two touchdowns and two interceptions after replacing Foles last week.
Slumping Newton: The Panthers quarterback hasn’t thrown a touchdown in two straight games for the first time in his career, and he’s completed less than 50 percent of his passes in the past three games. He’s become impatient at times, taking off and running before going through all of his reads. At times he’s become fixated on rookie receiver Kelvin Benjamin, who was targeted 10 times in his last outing but caught only two passes for 18 yards. Newton needs to get back to spreading the ball around more, as he was doing early in the season when the offense had more success. As he said this week, he has to trust the system and trust his teammates. Newton has risen to the occasion on Monday night in the past. He is 2-0 with five touchdown passes and no interceptions for a quarterback rating of 90.3. Over the past three games that rating has been 24.6.
Healthy offensive line: Both teams have had their share of injuries up front this season. The Eagles have gone through a league-high 11 offensive linemen, followed by Carolina with 10. The good news for Carolina is the left side of the line will be back with tackle Byron Bell and Amini Silatolu. This is key for many reasons. Tight end Greg Olsen stayed in to help slow the pass rush for the past few weeks. His production has dropped significantly with him catching only four passes for 46 yards in the past two games. Getting him more involved in the offense will help Newton (above). Stability up front also should help Newton’s accuracy. He was throwing off his back foot more than normal in the previous outing because there wasn’t room to step up in the pocket or he simply didn’t have a pocket to step into.
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