Published November 07, 2014
(SportsNetwork.com) - Nick Foles ran with his opportunity a season ago cultivated from injuries and the ineffectiveness of Michael Vick.
The football gods can be fickle, however, and they've now granted Mark Sanchez a second chance at the expense of an injured Foles, who has been shaky at times in 2014.
Sanchez, the ex-New York Jets starting quarterback, will get an extended look under center for the first-place Philadelphia Eagles starting Monday night when the struggling Carolina Panthers visit the City of Brotherly Love.
Sanchez was forced to take over for Foles in Houston last weekend and helped the Eagles to a 31-21 victory, completing a 52-yard pass to Jeremy Maclin on his first play since 2012 and finishing the contest 15-of-22 with a pair of touchdowns and two interceptions.
"He's already ready, he's always focused and always prepared to make plays and that's part of his makeup," Eagles coach Chip Kelly said of Sanchez. "That's what we really liked about him."
Maclin racked up 158 yards and a pair of touchdowns on six receptions in the game as Philadelphia gutted out the decision despite losing Foles to a fractured clavicle.
"When I went down (before last season with a torn ACL), I told myself to do whatever I can to come back better than before. I'm going to work to get better every day," Maclin stated after becoming the first receiver in franchise history to record back-to-back 150-plus receiving and two-plus TD contests in one season.
Foles began the game completing 10-of-13 passes for 124 yards with one score and a pick before leaving after one quarter.
LeSean McCoy contributed 117 yards on 23 carries, while Chris Polk added a touchdown run and Jordan Matthews posted a TD reception for the Eagles, who shook off a loss the prior week in Arizona and ascended to the top of the NFC East after Dallas lost at home to the Cardinals.
The triumph was quite costly, however, as Philadelphia not only lost the leader of its offense, the Birds also will be moving forward without their defensive captain, inside linebacker DeMeco Ryans, who suffered a ruptured Achilles.
Ryans was hurt in the fourth quarter after intercepting a Ryan Fitzpatrick pass. He fumbled while falling to the turf with no one around him, then left the field on a cart.
Foles' injury is not expected to require surgery but he is expected to be sidelined from 6-to-8 weeks. Ryans, meanwhile, was placed on season-ending injured reserve.
Carolina is hurting also but most of its ailments stem from poor play on the field. The Panthers are 1-5-1 over the last seven weeks after a promising 2-0 start to the season, falling out of the NFC South lead after dropping a 28-10 decision to New Orleans in Week 9.
The NFC South is the worst division in football, though, and despite their less-than-stellar play after the last two months the Panthers are still very much in the race, just one game behind the Saints in the loss column with seven games left on their schedule.
"I've been in a race like this before, we all have," Panthers coach Ron Rivera said. "It ends up being the team that comes back, that gets up and keeps fighting. The next thing you know, you're right in the thick of things."
The Saints broke a scoreless deadlock back on Oct. 30 by scoring on three straight possessions in between the second and third quarters to build a 21-7 advantage and cruised the rest of the way en route to ending their seven-game, regular-season road losing streak.
New Orleans' star pass rusher Junior Galette recorded two of the Saints' four sacks as the defense held Cam Newton to just 151 yards passing with an interception on just 10-of-28 efficiency.
Newton carried the ball seven times for 43 yards and a touchdown for Carolina, which accumulated just 231 total yards.
"We have to be professional about the situation and take responsibility and ownership and hold ourselves accountable," Newton said.
The Eagles and the Panthers have matched up just seven times previously with Philadelphia holding a 5-2 advantage. Carolina won the last meeting, 30-22, on Nov. 26, 2012 at Lincoln Financial Field when Newton accounted for four TDs, two on the ground and two through the air.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
There are some in Philadelphia who believe that Sanchez will be an upgrade over Foles, who has been a turnover machine in 2014, a stark contrast from the guy who threw 29 TDs versus two interceptions (when you include the playoffs) last season.
That might be a stretch, though, because Sanchez will be making his first NFL start since Dec. 30, 2012, after missing all of his last season with the Jets with a torn labrum in his right shoulder.
The former Southern Cal star and top-five pick certainly has a more impressive skill set than Foles, especially when it comes to athleticism and pure arm strength, but he has always struggled with accuracy while amassing a 37-31 career record as a starter. Things also figure to get much tougher now that opposing defenses will actually be game planning for Sanchez.
"I feel really bad for Nick, but I'm confident about Mark," Kelly said on Monday. "He knows the system. His preparation is outstanding, always ready. We feel real confident."
Sanchez will be taking over a Philadelphia offense that is fourth in the NFL in both points per game (29.3) and total yards (409.3).
A year ago this would have shaped up as strength versus strength because the 2013 Panthers defense was one of the two or three best in all of football as Carolina won the NFC South with a 12-4 record.
The sequel, however, has been a major disappointment, especially recently with the Panthers surrendering 30.7 points per game since their 2-0 start -- a number which is 31st in a 32-team league over that span.
"I'm tired of just the same talk of 'Hey, keep your head up. We've got next week,'" Panthers safety Roman Harper said. "Eventually, we're going to run out of weeks here. So we've got to do what we need to do ... whatever it takes to start winning these ball games or we're not going to be where we want to be at the end of the year."
The biggest issue has been defending the run and Carolina has allowed over 130 ypg on the ground over the past month. That should bode well for McCoy, the 2013 rushing leader who has surged after a disappointing start with 349 yards over his last three games.
The Eagles' offensive line has been injury-ridden all season and lost right guard Todd Herremans for the season with a torn biceps. That was tempered a bit, though, by the projected return of All-Pro left guard Evan Mathis, who has been activated off short-term IR after injuring his knee in Week 1.
The biggest issue on the Panthers stop unit in the continued absence of star defensive end Greg Hardy, who remains on the exempt-commissioner's permission list while appealing his conviction on charges of domestic assault against his then-girlfriend.
"Selfishly, as a player, would we want him as a player on our team? Of course. He makes us better," tight end Greg Olsen told ESPN.com. "We also have to understand there's a bigger picture. There's bigger things at play, socially, just the environment we're in. You have to respect that."
Offensively, Carolina has but far too much on the shoulders of the immensely talented Newton, who plays behind a dismal offensive line and has few threats outside the numbers, save for rookie receiver Kelvin Benjamin.
"He's a tremendous athlete, but I think he gets shortchanged when everybody just says he's a good athlete," Kelly said when discussing the Panthers' QB. "He's a really good quarterback. He can throw the ball (and) he can make all the throws. He's a complete quarterback.
"If guys are covered, his ability to then make something happen with his feet I think is what kind of sets him apart from some other guys in this league. He's a huge challenge for us in terms of facing him this week."
The problem is the Panthers' O-Line isn't very good when healthy and left tackle Byron Bell (knee/elbow), and guards Amini Silatolu (calf) and Trai Turner (knee/ankle) all were out with injuries against the Saints as Newton compiled a career-worst completion percentage.
The mini-bye week resulting from playing a Thursday night game against NOLA and a Monday night affair here has helped somewhat as all three are expected back in the lineup.
"Anything's possible," Rivera said. "Don't count us out. We're going to bounce back.We'll have a little bit of time to get some rest. We're going to get a whole bunch of guys back on the practice field, which gives me a lot of confidence."
Perhaps the best news for the Carolina offense is the absence of Ryans, who Kelly described as Mufasa, the righteous, wise and kindhearted leader in "The Lion King."
The limited Casey Matthews is expected to replace Ryans, although Emmanuel Acho and disappointing first-round pick Marcus Smith may also get some reps if Matthews falters.
Kelly really believes his offense is far more quarterback friendly than most others and he will be able to get things out of Sanchez that the Jets never could. Whether that's hubris or reality will play out over the second half of the season but things should get off to a good start here.
The Eagles have won eight straight regular-season home games -- their longest streak in Philadelphia since an 11-game run from 1991-93 -- and the Panthers just don't have the horses to stop that.
Sports Network predicted outcome: Eagles 24, Panthers 16