1. How will the Eagles offense do?
Jeff McLane: The Panthers defense is the best the Eagles will face since the Jets in Week 3. The unit's numbers aren't awe inspiring, but the return of linebacker Luke Kuechly and defensive tackle Star Lotulelei has buoyed the Panthers. They have lost defensive end Charles Johnson for an extended period and will likely be without rookie linebacker Shaq Thompson, though. The Eagles will have a tough time moving the ball on the ground. Nose tackle Kawann Short has done a tremendous job of clogging the middle. Kuechly and Thomas Davis are sideline-to-sideline linebackers. For the third straight week, Sam Bradford and the offense may have to work backward and use the pass to set up the run. The Panthers are sound in the secondary with veterans Charles Tillman, Roman Harper and former Eagles safety Kurt Coleman. Cornerback Josh Norman has been particularly sharp in coverage this season. The Eagles should once again try to work the middle of field. Slot receiver Jordan Matthews has a size advantage vs. the 5-foot-11 Bene Benwikere, but defensive coordinator Sean McDermott could try and move Norman inside.
Zach Berman: Carolina keeps opponents to 18.3 points per game, which is a good recipe for success. They're not winning shootouts – they're playing tough, disciplined defense and winning the turnover battle (plus-6 on the year, with 11 takeaways). The Eagles' offense has been undisciplined – they're second in the NFL with 14 giveaways – and that could be the difference on Sunday. If Bradford can solve the turnover woes, then the Eagles could be in good shape. But what evidence is there that he will do so?
I'm glad you mentioned Short. He was the NFC defensive player of the week after Carolina's win over Seattle after two sacks. He'll be a tough assignment for the Eagles' interior line. Then in the second level, combination of Kuechly and Thomas Davis so impressive. Chip Kelly called them the best pair of linebackers the Eagles will see this year, and it's hard to disagree. Remember what Sean Lee did against the Eagles in Week 2? It's not apples-to-apples because Lee played the outside and Kuechly will play middle linebacker, but it could be that type of impact on the game. Marshawn Lynch rushed for only 3.2 yards last week, and a lot of that had to do with the play of Carolina's front seven. This will be a big test for DeMarco Murray and Ryan Mathews.
As far as the Eagles' passing game, I think Riley Cooper plays despite missing time this week at practice and Nelson Agholor remains sidelined. I'd expect more 12 personnel, but the Eagles need Matthews to have a game similar to last season's performance against Carolina if Bradford will put up big numbers. If the Eagles go 12 personnel with Matthews on the field, he'll need to play on the outside.
2. How will the defense do?
McLane: The Eagles did a tremendous job taking away Odell Beckham -- the Giants' lone receiving weapon – last week. Bill Davis forced Eli Manning to go elsewhere to beat his defense and "elsewhere" often wasn't open. The Panthers similarly have just one weapon that could warrant double teams – tight end Greg Olson (24 catches for 374 yards and three touchdowns). Jordan Hicks will spend some time on Olson, as will safeties Malcolm Jenkins and Walter Thurmond. When Kelvin Benjamin suffered a season-ending ACL injury, the receiver cupboard was suddenly barren for the Panthers. Ted Ginn and Corey Brown aren't exactly going to strike fear into an opponent. But the real danger for the Eagles lies under center with Cam Newton. The Eagles could take away all his options downfield and the quarterback could still find a way to burn them with his legs. Davis will almost certainly employ spies to monitor Newtown. Connor Barwin, Hicks and Thurmond are the most likely candidates.
Berman: I see another good game from the Eagles' defense. They're playing so well this season, and this is not an imposing offense. The big question is whether they can keep forcing turnovers at a similar rate against Carolina. The Eagles force 2.7 turnovers per game, and are second in the league with 16. The Panthers average one turnover per game, and have only five this season. They've scored more than three touchdowns in a game just once this year.
Newton is much healthier than he was last season, so last November's blowout is not a good model for how he'll play. He had a big passing game last season, although he doesn't have Benjamin this season. He remains a dangerous quarterback, and Olsen is a reliable target. I'd also give credit to Jonathan Stewart, who is a tough runner. This won't be easy for the Eagles' run defense even though he averages only 3.8 yards per carry.
Overall, I think it's a good performance from the defense, but perhaps without the forced turnovers from previous weeks.
3. Who's a player to watch?
McLane: DeMarco Murray had his best game as an Eagle last week, in particular in the second half when he rushed for 95 yards and a touchdown on 17 carries. Has his last two games (192 yards on 42 carries) been a product of facing substandard defenses or is he finally rounding into form? The offensive line's improvement played a large part in his success, but will the interior linemen –Jason Kelce, Allen Barbre, Matt Tobin – be able to handle Short up front and Kuechly and Davis at the second level? Could Mathews factor more prominently into the run game?
Berman: Barwin is a player to watch this week. I think the Eagles use him as the spy on Newton, similar to last season, because of Barwin's size and athleticism. This is where Barwin's versatility is so valuable. He had 3.5 sacks against Carolina last season. That might not be realistic, but if he can agitate Newton, he'll do his job.
And of course, I need to mention Bradford in this section. Everyone should be watching Bradford to see if he'll cut down on his turnovers and show more consistency passing the ball. This is the seventh game of the season – it's too late to say he's still adjusting.
4. What's your prediction?
McLane: I took it on the chin last week after picking the Giants. They didn't look like they belonged in the Eagles' class, especially without a number of key starters on defense. But did the Birds just catch the Giants at a bad time? I still can't wipe the memory of the first four games. It was bound to take a little time for the Eagles to jell, but are they building toward something or greater or have they already hit their peak against two struggling squads? The Panthers' 5-0 mark could come with an asterisk with wins over teams with a combined .310 winning percentage. But they won in Seattle, which is always a difficult task, and Newton was clutch down the stretch. I think they'll be able to take away the Eagles' run game. And we've seen what happens when the Eagles can't move the ball on the ground. Panthers 23, Eagles 20.
Berman: You don't get to 5-0 in the NFL by accident. The Panthers deserve respect – especially after winning in Seattle. This might sound obvious: the Turnover distribution is going to determine the game. The Panthers aren't turning the ball over much on offense, and the Eagles are. The Eagles' defense has overshadowed the offense's five turnovers during the past two games, but it's hard to win games with the Eagles turning the ball over at this clip. So if they fix it, they'll win. But I'm not going to pick against a 5-0 team at home against a 3-3 team on a short week with an inconsistent quarterback. Give me Panthers 20, Eagles 17.