An important TNF game? Eagles, Panthers play for top of NFC

NFL Live unanimous on Panthers over Eagles (0:39)

The NFL Live crew unanimously sides with the Panthers to win on Thursday Night Football because of their outstanding defense and home-field advantage. (0:39)

Thursday Night Football has a bad reputation -- much of it earned -- but this week's game looks like a doozy.

The Philadelphia Eagles (4-1) drop in on the Carolina Panthers (4-1) in Charlotte to kick off Week 6, and you don't need to be a mathematician to figure out that the winner will be 5-1. ESPN Stats & Information says that if the Eagles win, they'll have a 34 percent chance to go on to earn the No. 1 seed in the NFC playoffs, whereas they'll have only a 10 percent chance with a loss. If the Panthers win, their chances of nabbing the NFC's top seed improve to 23 percent, compared to 5 percent if they lose.

So yeah, it's only the sixth week, but this is a pretty big game.

If you assume the unbeaten Kansas City Chiefs are the league's best team right now, then which team is second best? Along with the Green Bay Packers, Atlanta Falcons and Denver Broncos, the Eagles and Panthers have a strong case.

Who will win? It's fair to make Carolina a slight favorite. They're the home team, and the Eagles will be without right tackle Lane Johnson (concussion), whose absence during his drug suspension last season had a detrimental effect on their offense. But these teams are evenly matched and are doing a lot of very good -- and very similar -- things.

Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz appears to be a much-improved player since last season, and Panthers quarterback Cam Newton seems to be a much-improved player since, well, two weeks ago.

"You have two big, strong guys who are athletically at the tops of their position," Eagles offensive coordinator Frank Reich said Tuesday. "[They] can extend plays in ways that are rare at the position, Carson at 6-foot-5 ... and Cam at 6-foot-6, whatever he is, he's a big, strong guy, both very athletic. That certainly creates some dynamics that are tough for defenses to defend."

This should be fun.

So to get you geared up for this rare marquee Thursday night matchup, here's a look at a few of the things the Eagles and Panthers are doing well so far this year that could keep them in the hunt for premium NFC playoff spots.

Deep passing

On throws traveling at least 15 yards downfield, Newton leads all qualified NFL quarterbacks this year with a 66.3 completion percentage. He ranked last in the league (38.7 percent) in that category in 2016. Part of what has helped with this improvement is the effectiveness of Carolina's play-action game, possibly due to the attention defenses are paying to dynamic rookie running back Christian McCaffrey. Newton leads all qualified NFL quarterbacks this year with a 77.3 completion percentage on play-action. Last year, he was also last in the league in that category (42.9 percent).

In Philadelphia, Wentz is having greater success downfield as well, likely because of the improvements the front office made in the wide receiver group with the additions of Alshon Jeffery and Torrey Smith. Eagles receivers this year rank fifth in the NFL with an average of 14.2 yards per reception, and their average touchdown catch is 37 yards. Last year, Eagles receivers ranked next-to-last in the league at 10.7 yards per catch.

Third-down offense

Wentz threw three touchdown passes on third down all of last season. He has six already this year. The Eagles have converted 11-of-26 third downs of 10 yards or longer this year. The number (11) and the percentage (42.3) both lead the league. As a result, the Eagles rank first in the NFL this year in third-down conversion percentage on offense.

Guess who ranks second? Yes, the Carolina Panthers. Both of these teams have excelled at extending drives on offense, which is a big reason they lead the league in time of possession differential. The Panthers are second in that category at 6:32, behind only the Eagles, who hold a staggering 11:04 advantage in time of possession this season.

"That's so important, the way our offense is able to control the ball and take possessions away from them by doing that," Panthers linebacker Thomas Davis said after Sunday's win in Detroit. "I think you saw it today. Once they were able to put points on the board, that really forced [the Lions'] hand, forced them to start passing the ball more and kind of took away that balance they had early in the game. And that's what allows us to get to the quarterback."

Starting quickly

The Panthers have been outscored by a total of 28 points in the fourth quarters of their five games so far this season. The reason they're 4-1 is that they've outscored opponents by 39 points in the first three quarters, fourth best in the NFL.

The Eagles, meanwhile, start faster than any team in the league. They've outscored their opponents 41-3 in the first quarters of their games this season. If you want to watch this game, make sure you get the dishes done and the garbage out well in advance of kickoff. You could miss some early excitement if you wait.

"We've got another team coming in that's playing very well right now," Panthers coach Ron Rivera said. "They run the ball well, they throw the ball well, and they're a swarming defense as well. Our hands are going to be full."