What's the first game that comes to mind when you think of the Carolina Panthers? For 99% of you, it's one of the most painful losses in the Andy Reid era, a 14-3 loss at home in the 2003 NFC Championship. Unfortunately it's a game where the result, their third consecutive missed opportunity, is more memorable than the actual event.
In many ways, the Eagles dominated that game though. They had more total yards, more first downs, and the time of possession was even despite Carolina's 40 rushing attempts. The defense held runners Stephen Davis and DeShaun Foster to 76 and 60 yards respectively, forcing eight punts in the process. It was the Eagles receivers who literally dropped the ball that night, a whopping 8 times to be exact. All three of McNabb's interceptions were a direct result of dropped passes or poor route running on the part of James Thrash and Todd Pinkston, before he was finally removed in the fourth quarter due to a rib injury he suffered on a late hit (no flag).
Sorry to reopen old wounds, but there is a point. Since John Fox took over as head coach in 2002, this remains the Eagles only loss in four meetings against the Panthers.
Yes, the Eagles have generally handled this Sunday's opponent well, a good sign if you believe in history predicting the future. When discussing the Panthers, there is little reason not to — in so many ways, they are almost the exact same team from 2003, a club the Birds actually defeated less than two months prior to their playoff upset. Jake Delhomme, Muhsin Muhammad, and Steve Smith still comprise the entirety of the Carolina passing game, while the offense still features a run first, power-oriented ground attack. And while the defense has switched to a Cover-2, some faces (DE Julius Peppers) or styles (sideline-to-sideline MLB Jon Beason, playmaking CB Chris Gamble) remain the same.
Not once has Smith or Muhammad gone over 100 yards against the Eagles defense, and the've only allowed one 100 yard rusher. Excluding the Championship game, the offense has gone for 25, 30, and 27 points in wins, including a 300-yard performance from backup Jeff Garcia in '06. Based on those figures, it's fair to say in all but one game, the Eagles have had Carolina's number in every phase of the game.
The Eagles seem to have a lot more questions heading into this season than most, but it seems as though their schemes are well equipped to face John Fox teams. Reid loves to pass the ball, and Panthers defenses generally aren't loaded with playmakers in the secondary, while the Eagles defense is versatile enough to key on the run, but also not allow Steve Smith to beat them deep.
Of course, the two biggest questions right now are still whether the offensive line can protect McNabb, and how the defense will operate with a new coordinator, so it's entirely possible some of the advantages realized in past encounters may not carry over to Sunday at all. That said, they have a pretty good idea by now what these Panthers want to do, and apparently know how to stop it.