Are the Philadelphia Eagles ready to take command of the NFC?

A year ago, no one would think that would be possible. The Eagles were 7-9, and both fans and media were wondering if first-year head coach Doug Pederson was the right man for the job.

Not only are the Eagles now 4-1, a game ahead of the Dallas, but if they beat Carolina tonight at Bank of America Stadium, they will be viewed as one of the favorites in the very competitive NFC.

The birds are aiming for their first 5-1 start since 2014. Philadelphia has won 6 of its last 7 games since Week 16 in 2016, including 3 in a row.

Here are five things to watch.

He's a "Star"

While his numbers don't jump off the page, defensive tackle Star Lotulelei, a 2013 first-round pick, could provide a matchup problem for the interior of the Eagles offensive line.  He is as strong as anyone in the league and has the quickness to disrupt the Eagles running game and give Jason Kelce some problems.

One way the Eagles can try to avoid Lotulelei is try to work the screen game, using Kelce in a position he excels in, pulling up and blocking up-the-field.

The question is, which of the Eagles backs will be used in that role, the guess is you could see more of Kenjon Barner in a game like this tonight.

Eagles head coach Doug Pederson vs Panthers head coach Ron Rivera

Two Andy Reid disciples. Pederson, and offensive minded coach has done a fine job this season with his play-calling. He has used the run game over the past few weeks and added some slants in the passing game to help give the Eagles the No. 2 overall scoring offense in the NFC.

The Eagles have scored 20+ points in 9 consecutive games, which is the longest active streak in the NFL. Philadelphia is tied with Atlanta, Green Bay and New England for the most 20+ point games (18) in the NFL since the start of last season.

As for Rivera, he is a defensive-minded guy, and the Panthers bring in the ninth best scoring defense in the league, giving up just 18.8 points per game.

Even though the Eagles have added a pair of  receivers to help the passing game, its been the running game that has stood out for the Eagles recently. Carolina gives up just 79 yards per game on the ground, sixth best in the league, against a Eagles rushing attack which ranks fifth best in the league at 138.8 yards per game.

Will Pederson stick with the ground attack or will he go after the Panthers secondary?

Eagles linebackers versus Christian McCaffrey

McCaffrey caught 5-of-7 targets for 31 yards with a touchdown in the Panthers' Week 5 win over the Lions last week and could be a headache for Jordan Hicks, Nigel Bradham and Mychal Kendricks.

McCaffrey can be lined up all over the field; in the slot, backfield and even as a wide-out, he has 34 carries and 27 catches this season for 333 total yards. One thing that McCaffrey has been good at doing is following Cam Newton when he scrambles out-of-the-pocket.

There was a play last week where McCaffrey came from the left-side of the field over to the right-side of the field, across the middle and Newton found him on the run for a big gain.

3rd down is the key

Eagles QB Carson Wentz leads the NFL in the following 3rd-down categories: completions (37), passing yards (574), passing yards per attempt (11.04), passing TDs (6), passer rating (137.8) and passing first downs (30). Wentz has also completed 14-of- 23 (60.9%) red zone passes for 106 yards, 7 TDs (T-5th in the NFL), 0 INTs and a 111.6 passer rating (6th in the NFL).

It’s surprising to see the Panthers rank 10th defensively on third-down, teams are converting 38.1 percent of the time of third-down.

With two teams that are playing some good football, on a Thursday night, which typically gives you sloppy football - the third-down battle should be one of the top factors in this one.

Filling in for Ryan Khali, Lane Johnson

Panthers center Ryan Khali remains unlikely for tonight's matchup with the Eagles, while Philadelphia right tackle Lane Johnson has already been ruled out. How each teams back-up preforms could be a key to success on the offensive side of the ball.  We saw earlier this season for the Eagles what one weak-spot on the offensive line could disrupt the offense.  Since the Eagles benched Isaac Seumalo, the offense has taken off, but the team was just 2-8 without Johnson last season and are 9-2 in their last 11 with him.

Tyler Larsen will continue to fill in at center for Carolina, the second-year man has played in five games, but could have his hands full helping out with Tim Jernigan and Fletcher Cox, if he returns to the lineup tonight.

Overall, the Panthers line is one of the top units in the league, but with a backup at center the Eagles front four could disrupt the Carolina offense and force Cam Newton to make some throws on the run.

The Pick: Panthers 24, Eagles 21