CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Fresh off a punishing game in which he was sacked three times and absorbed eight quarterback hits, Carson Wentz was asked how he felt physically during his postgame news conference.
"I'm feeling great. We're 5-1, baby," he responded.
But the Philadelphia Eagles' 28-23 win over the Carolina Panthers was hard-earned. They knew they had their hands full against a Panthers defense that entered the game ranked third in the NFL in sacks (17), especially without the services of right tackle Lane Johnson, still in concussion protocol. Johnson's replacement, Halapoulivaati Vaitai, gave up a sack to Julius Peppers right out of the chute. All three sacks came off the right side of the Eagles' line, along with seven of the 13 pressures.
The degree of difficulty was ratcheted up by the fact that Carolina used exotic looks it had not shown on tape. And did they ever bring the heat. According to ESPN Stats & Information, the Panthers sent the blitz 24 times in the game -- the most by any team this season.
"It’s a tremendous testament to those players in that locker room," Eagles coach Doug Pederson said. "I told them tonight after the game I haven’t been part of a team that has battled through so much injury and adversity to be in the first month of the season, month and a half of the season, the resiliency of the football team started to show last year at the end of the year. They’re learning from last year. They’re learning how to finish games and just the overall consistency from the leaders leading this football team. They are sacrificing each other- themselves for the football team. It’s a fun thing to watch."
Wentz went just 3-of-15 for 35 yards with two sacks against the blitz on his first nine drives. Then he figured it out, going 5-of-6 for 86 yards with a TD and no takedowns on the final four series. And, despite being popped and twisted along the way, he tossed three touchdowns with no interceptions in a performance that earned further respect from his teammates.
"You want to look at a game and talk about character? That freakin' showed it right there," said tight end Zach Ertz, who caught two of those touchdowns to continue his red-hot start to the season. "I mean, the guy is getting smacked early and often in the beginning of the game. He never wavered, his confidence never wavered, his composure never wavered. I think that just speaks volumes about how we feel about him and how he feels about us."
The 22nd game of Wentz's NFL career proved to be one of the most challenging. The whole scene contrasted so sharply from last week's 34-7 trouncing of the Arizona Cardinals, where everything this Eagles team did seemed so effortless. This one was more like a cage match, with just about every yard coming at a cost. Difficult as it proved to be, the win revealed how much this quarterback and team have grown over the course of the last year-plus. It is an experience that should serve them well as they try to shift from a promising upstart team to playoff contenders.
"We stayed together the whole game. They did some good things defensively, some different pressure looks that we haven't seen. That's tough on a short week," Wentz said. "But we found a way to win a close ballgame. That's ultimately what we struggled with last year: winning on the road and winning close ballgames. And we've done that successfully in these first six games.
"Having a year together with this team, under Coach [Doug Pederson], myself, everything, we're just built differently. We have a different character makeup in that locker room, and we just have a bunch of guys that believe that no matter the situation we can find a way to win a ballgame.
"It feels great," Wentz added. "That was hard fought win, on the road, on a short week, on prime-time TV. So to come out of it 5-1 and to know that we’re at home the next couple of weeks, that’s big for us."