ROB MAADDI, AP Pro Football Writer
PHILADELPHIA (AP) — Mark Sanchez shook off the rust and had one of the best games of his career in his first start in two years.
Sanchez threw for 332 yards and two touchdowns, the defense dominated and the Philadelphia Eagles beat the Carolina Panthers 45-21 Monday night.
Sanchez started his first game since Dec. 30, 2012 for Nick Foles, who broke his collarbone last week. He looked better than he did when he was the franchise quarterback for the New York Jets.
“After playing for a while, you learn a lot,” Sanchez said. “I’ve made plenty of mistakes and hurt the team. The most important thing was taking care of the football, communicating well and executing. If we do that, generally we’ll be successful. There are still plenty of things to clean up though. By no means was this perfect.”
Sanchez had never thrown for more than 265 yards without an interception and had more yards passing in a game just three times in four seasons with the Jets.
Darren Sproles had two touchdowns — a 65-yard punt return and 8-yard run. Bradley Fletcher returned an interception 34 yards for a TD and Jordan Matthews had 138 yards receiving and two TDs.
The Eagles (7-2) stayed on top in the NFC East. They’re trying to repeat as division champions without Foles.
The Panthers (3-6-1) hardly look like the team that won the NFC South last year. They’ve lost four in a row and already have allowed more points in 10 games than they did in 2013. Making things worse, Panthers defensive tackle Star Lotulelei was carted off the field late in the third quarter.
“We’ve got to do things better,” Panthers coach Ron Rivera said. “I have to coach better, coaches have to coach better, we have to practice better and then go out and play better. And we’re going to do it together as a team.”
Some things we learned in the Eagles’ rout over the Panthers:
CAM’S KRYPTONITE: Newton had never been sacked more than seven times in his career before the Eagles got him nine times. Conor Barwin had 3 1/2 sacks and Brandon Graham had 1 1/2. The Panthers had two of their three injured starters back in the lineup, but couldn’t protect their quarterback.
“I’m great, that’s not going to be a distraction for me,” Newton said. “Yeah, I got hit a lot today, but it’s all in the game. We’re not playing ballet, we’re not running track or anything. This is a physical sport that you signed up for, and you know, I’ll be ready to go.”
BARWIN’S BREAKOUT: Barwin already has 10 1/2 sacks, one shy of his career-best. He has two three-sack games and is establishing himself as one of the premier linebackers in the league.
“We wanted to keep Cam in the pocket and if we didn’t, we didn’t want him to go north, we just wanted him to go east and west and we did that,” Barwin said. “Nobody gave him a hole to rush through. Everyone stayed disciplined and he didn’t really know where to go when he tried to escape.”
SCORING MACHINE: The touchdowns by Sproles and Fletcher gave the Eagles nine by the special teams and defense. That’s a franchise record. The Eagles have scored an offensive, defensive and special teams TD in the same game twice.
“Just an outstanding performance by all three phases,” Sanchez said.
AIR JORDAN: Matthews, a second-round pick, has filled in nicely as the slot receiver after the Eagles released Jason Avant, who plays for Carolina. He has five TDs, including a pair of two-touchdown performances.
“When your coach and quarterback both trust you and have your back, you have to have theirs, too,” Matthews said. “I knew I had to go out there and make plays.”
PLAYOFFS? PLAYOFFS? The Panthers missed an opportunity to move into first place ahead of the New Orleans Saints (4-5). They’re still right in the mix in a division despite going 1-6-1 since a 2-0 start.
“It does give you some hope, but we’re running out of time quite honestly,” Rivera said.
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