Both teams are atop their respective divisions with 4-1 records, so the winner will maintain that position. The Eagles will anyway since they have a game and a half lead over second-place Washington in the NFC East.
The Panthers are only half a game ahead of Atlanta (3-1) in the NFC South, so a loss would put them a half game back.
That this is an NFC game also is a big factor. Detroit is tied with the Falcons for the best conference record at 3-0. The Panthers are 2-1, losing to New Orleans three weeks ago.
If two teams in different divisions are tied for a wild-card spot, then conference record is the second tiebreaker after head-to-head meetings. Conference record is the fourth tiebreaker if two teams are tied for a playoff spot in the same division.
While it’s early, you can bet Carolina coach Ron Rivera and Philadelphia’s Doug Pederson understand what’s at stake.
Players do, too.
“This is a fight for essentially the No. 1 seed right now in the NFC,’’ Carolina outside linebacker Thomas Davis said. “We understand that. I’m pretty sure they understand that.’’
Here are five keys for Carolina in the 8:25 p.m. game at Bank of America Stadium:
Keep Cam in control: Cam Newton has gone on hot streaks the past few years, but seldom have the numbers looked better than in wins at New England and Detroit the past two weeks. The 2015 NFL MVP has six touchdown passes and one interception while throwing for 671 yards. He’s completed 77.4 percent of his passes to increase his season rate to 68.3, well above his 59.8 career rate. He’s not just making smart decisions, he’s finishing them off. He should have more opportunities against a Philadelphia team that ranks 22nd in total defense and gives up 19.8 points a game.
Control the clock: Keep an eye on this one. Philadelphia ranks first in the NFL in average time of possession with 35:32 a game. The Panthers rank second at 33:16. Both teams like to grind it out with long, methodical drives, which helps their defenses. Carolina’s first priority will be stopping the Eagles’ ground attack, which ranks fourth in the NFL with 138.8 yards a game. That’ll be strength versus strength since the Panthers rank sixth in the NFL against the run, allowing 79.8 yards a game. Carolina will want to establish the run as well coming off a game in which it had only 28 yards rushing. It won’t be easy against a defense ranked second against the run, allowing 62.8 yards a game.
Control the first and last quarter: The Panthers have given up two fourth-quarter touchdowns in each of the past two games and are being outscored 41-13 in the final period. That is a concern Rivera addressed. Stopping the Eagles early will be just as important. They lead the NFL with 8.2 first-quarter points. The Panthers are 15th at 3.8.
Control third-down conversions: Again, strengths of both teams. The Eagles rank first in the NFL with a 53.48 percent conversion rate. They have done a great job of keeping it to third and short. The Panthers rank second at 50 percent, much of this because Newton is making great plays. Both teams also are good defensively at getting off the field on third down. The Eagles rank fifth, allowing opponents a 35.09 success rate. The Panthers rank 10th at 38.10 percent. Something has to give.
Control the tight end: Ed Dickson has emerged as a legitimate threat for the Panthers the past two weeks with nine catches for 237 yards. The Eagles can’t ignore him after that and the Panthers need to attack with him because that opens up the rest of the offense. Philadelphia’s Zach Ertz has been a threat all season, ranking second among tight ends with 77.4 receiving yards a game. He’s Carson Wentz's top target, so look for him to see a lot of Luke Kuechly.