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Sanchez shows his strong side

With Eagles defense ruling the day, Mark Sanchez does his job.

Eagles quarterback Mark Sanchez. (Ron Cortes/Staff Photographer)
Eagles quarterback Mark Sanchez. (Ron Cortes/Staff Photographer)Read more

NO BUTT FUMBLES. No forced throws. He even covered a dangerously low snap from Jason Kelce early in the game, when the score was close and it mattered.

By the end last night, the better version that Mark Sanchez had promised delivered this: Over 300 yards of passing on a night when the Carolina Panthers sold out to stop the run, 31 points engineered in a 45-21 win and, maybe most important of all, zero turnovers.

That's right, zero. It marked the first time this season that the Eagles did not give the other team the ball at least once, allowing an offense that was generating points despite itself to show what it is capable of when it gets out of its own way. And allowing a defense tortured by poor field position to feast on the opposite all night long.

"I've been through some bad times," Sanchez said. "I've been through some great times. I just tried to keep a level head and rely on the guys around me. And man did they come through big time.''

Sanchez completed 21 of 37 passes for 332 yards and a passer rating of 102.5. But his first two passes were gaspers, the kinds of throws that punctuated his final healthy season with the New York Jets, not the ones his new coach referenced all week. One went dangerously to open space. Another bounced off a defender's rear, and you could practically hear the collective sigh of relief among a Lincoln Financial crowd that only moments before had frenzily approved as Casey Matthews – yes, Casey Matthews – stripped DeAngelo Williams of the football.

That was the opening shot of a mind-boggling performance by the ever-improving Eagles defense, a group expected to take a big step backward after last week's season-ending loss to DeMeco Ryan. Instead, Matthews held more than his own as his replacement, the defensive line menaced Carolina quarterback Cam Newton on almost a play-by-play basis, and the Eagles secondary blanketed targets so well that it was plausible, at least on this night, to believe they have enough to allow their team to compete not only for a playoff spot, but for a championship.

But, of course, we get ahead of ourselves with that, an easy thing to do based on what you saw in this game and in the one against the Texans last week, forgetting what you saw in games against playoff-worthy teams such as Arizona and San Francisco.

And forgetting what you saw on Sanchez's first two passes, and at various times throughout last night's game. Honest to a fault, Jeremy Maclin casually said last week that Nick Foles threw a more catchable ball than his backup, and at times the Eagles receivers seemed out to prove that.

At other times however… He hit Jeremy Maclin in stride, stepped out of of trouble in the next play, and fired down the middle of the field for a 21-yard gain to Brent Celek that gave the Eagles a first-and-goal at the 7.

It was the kind of throw that made Sanchez so coveted out of college, a fifth overall pick, a throw he used to make big plays during the Jets two runs to the AFC Championship Game under his guidance.

"I think he's got experience in it, and he's got a good feel for it, just the timing of it and where to place the ball," Eagles coach Chip Kelly said this week. "I think it's just one of the things he does well. So it's just an experience factor coming in. He had that before he got to us.''

He also had this dubious reputation as a guy who would play foolishly with the ball at critical times, a guy who entered this game with more career interceptions (71) than touchdown passes (70), a guy with only a 55 percent completion rate.

But after Sproles returned a punt for a touchdown after another defensive stop, the Eagles led, 17-7, and Sanchez started acting like that guy he vowed he was, the guy who played so well in the preseason and at times in the 31-21 victory over Houston. He engineered a 10-play, 91-yard drive to push the lead to 24-7, making two consecutive pump-fake throws to Jordan Matthews for big chunks of land, making a tough back-shoulder throw to Brent Celek, then hitting Matthews twice more in stride.

Matthews, you may recall, was a favorite target of Sanchez in the preseason, when the two were part of the team's second squad. The drive showed off what made Sanchez an effective starter early in his career, a budding star even: pump fakes, stepping up in the pocket, throwing accurately on the run, even when running to his left.

And lethal in the red zone. Sanchez is now 7-for-7 in two games. Which made it plausible to think this team will be just fine without its starting quarterback.

"After playing for a while, you learn a lot,'' he said after last night's game. "Made a lot of mistakes. Played a lot of games where I'm throwing interceptions and hurting the team. The most important thing I've learned is to take care of the ball, communicate really well and establish our tempo.

"If we can do those things we will be generally successful.''

Especially if its defense continues chasing the other team's quarterback all over the field.