Week 4 will feature a matchup of division rivals separated by just a few short hours of interstate. The Carolina Panthers and Atlanta Falcons rivalry, also known as the I-85 rivalry, has not favored the Panthers since the teams first met in 1995. In fact, the Falcons own this rivalry and it's not even close with the Dirty Birds owning a 22-12 record.
Further complicating this matchup is the fact that Atlanta is undefeated on the season and their signal-caller, Matt Ryan, is playing extremely well. Ryan has found much success in the Georgia Dome with a record of 25-4 on his home turf.
Entering this game, the Panthers are facing many questions. The most concerning is the ability of their star quarterback, Cam Newton, to bounce back from an ugly loss. Newton has shown a lack of maturity in the face of adversity and seems to be lacking the discipline to learn from his mistakes. If there is any hope for him to turn his season around and make good on his promise to be a better teammate, he would have taken Steve Smith's words to heart.
Another issue facing this young Carolina team is their performance in all facets of the game. Their offense has been Jekyll and Hyde-like through three games and their defense is giving the coaching staff and fanbase to reach for a bottle of antacid tablets. So far, the inconsistent play has landed the Panthers at 1-2.
Meanwhile, the 3-0 Falcons are looking to keep their undefeated streak intact. Atlanta has been insanely dominant this season leading the NFC South in points scored with 94 and have given up the fewest, allowing just 48.
Despite those impressive numbers, they are 15th in passing yards, 25th in rushing with their defense ranking eighth in pass defense and 24th in rush defense. The latter stat is more telling because if the Panthers have a healthy Jonathan Stewart on the field, his efforts combined with DeAngelo Williams and Mike Tolbert could take advantage of the 129 averaged rushing yards given up by Atlanta.
However, for Carolina, will it be enough?
Newton has shown a tendency to let interceptions and on-field mistakes get to him and the defense will be coming off a game that showed two backups light them up en route to giving up 36 points. The deck is definitely stacked against the Panthers.
But what makes this rivalry what it is today?
If you discount the lopsided record, the teams are very similar in terms of historical accomplishments. Both teams have been division champions four times. Each has a conference title and a Super Bowl appearance to their credit. It could be argued these two teams have the makings of a great modern rivalry.
However, the Panthers will need to close the gap considerably for that to happen.
The Panthers have never really held an advantage in this series with their best showing being in the 1990s when they tied the Falcons at 5-5. Since then, it has been all Atlanta. From 2000-2009, the Falcons won the series 13-7 and since 2010, they are undefeated at 4-0.
That's right, the Panthers haven't beaten the Falcons this decade.
What can we expect going into Sunday?
For starters, the Panthers will be playing with a chip on their shoulders. They will have to if they are to compete with the Falcons and have a shot at a victory and respect. On the other hand, Atlanta will be heavy favorites but should keep in mind this is a rivalry game. If they are unprepared, this could become a trap game for them.
On paper, these teams field two of the most exciting offenses in the league adding to the charm of the rivalry. The Falcons are represented by Ryan, receivers Roddy White and Julio Jones and future Hall of Famer Tony Gonzalez. Michael Turner is a great asset to the running game and a complement to the Atlanta offense.
For the Panthers, their offense is so talented with Newton, Williams, Stewart, Smith and Olsen it should be more of a force on the field.
Essentially, these teams could either find themselves in a shootout or a close game of strategic field position, assuming the defense for both teams show up. However, if Carolina is unable to play at the level they are capable of and show a lack of heart, Atlanta will destroy them.
This will be a statement game for both teams. Carolina proving they can recover from a huge loss; Atlanta attempting to put the league on notice. It may take a few seasons, but this rivalry has all the potential in the world to being compared to that of Pittsburgh-Baltimore, New England-Indianapolis (during the Peyton Manning years) and Dallas-New York in that playoff or division title hopes are on the line.
Carolina will look to establish a new era of dominant football, while Atlanta will look to continue bullying the Panthers to establish dominance within the division and the conference.