The date was November 5, 1995. The expansion Carolina Panthers were in San Francisco meeting the defending champion, the 49ers, for the first time ever. At first glance, the game looked to be a rout in favor of San Francisco. However, those Panthers weren’t your typical expansion team, and when the final whistle sounded, Carolina had pulled off an incredible and improbable upset.
Thus, a rivalry was born.
The Panthers-49ers rivalry in the NFC West was short lived, but it was entertaining while it lasted. After the league realigned into eight divisions in 2002, the Niners remained in place in the new-look NFC West while the Panthers moved the newly formed NFC South. After seven seasons, the rivalry was officially over.
Much has happened since these two teams competed within the same division. The Panthers earned their only trip to the Super Bowl in 2003 and have experienced little to moderate success over the past decade, being mired in a slump of four consecutive losing seasons. The 49ers were just horrendous until the arrival of Jim Harbaugh and returned to their former glory by making deep playoff runs in both 2011 and 2012. The latter capped off with a trip to the Super Bowl.
Overall, the Panthers lead the series 10-7 and have won the last three meetings.
On Sunday, a little over 19 years to the day since their first encounter, the Carolina Panthers (5-3) and the San Francisco 49ers (6-2) will meet again. With both teams playing well through the first half of the season, a great game could rekindle an old rivalry.
Aside from their similarities on offense and defense, there are a few more things about these two that would make for a compelling rivalry.
Coaches Are Familiar with Each Other
Both Ron Rivera and Jim Harbaugh were teammates with the Chicago Bears during the late 1980s and early 1990s. Each respects the other immensely, but their paths have differed upon assuming their roles as team head coach. Rivera has struggled in his first two seasons as head coach of the Panthers, but he has seemed to find his groove in his third year. Harbaugh has enjoyed a little more success by resurrecting a Stanford program before doing the same in San Francisco when he arrived in 2011.
After three seasons as NFL head coaches, Harbaugh is way ahead of Rivera in coaching success. It should be of no surprise the Harbaugh-led Niners are clear favorites against a rising Panthers team that is over .500 for the first time since 2008.
However, Rivera shouldn’t be underestimated, and his recent change in coaching style has his team playing the best football of his tenure. It may take a certain degree of aggressiveness and risk taking to get a win at Candlestick, but Rivera looks to have the pieces in place to emerge victorious.
Young, Talented Quarterbacks
Another storyline to follow could be the budding rivalry between Carolina’s Cam Newton and San Francisco’s Colin Kaepernick. The two roomed together at the 2011 NFL Combine and have a great deal of respect for each other. As touted franchise quarterbacks for their respective teams, these guys can be the NFC’s version of Tom Brady vs. Peyton Manning for years to come. That is, of course, if they continue to meet each other on a perennial basis either through the regular season or playoffs. The emphasis being on the latter as winning and postseason success will definitely renew the defunct rivalry.
This meeting will be the first between Newton and Kaepernick, and depending on the outcome of each team’s finish, it could serve as a playoff preview. For now, the focus will simply stay on the game at hand.
There is no doubt Newton will feel the pressure to win this game because a win over a team that is four games over .500 will go a long way in silencing the critics about Carolina’s recent winning streak. Additionally, it will make the Panthers more relevant in the playoff picture amongst wider circles.
Kaepernick has experienced success early on and guiding his team to last year’s Super Bowl has put him in a position where the pressure is not nearly as heavy. However, there have been some concerns about his performance this year (the Niners are last in passing), and going against a top defense will not be easy for him.
Of course, the 49ers defense is pretty good too.
Defense Wins Games (and Championships)
Any rivalry is usually defined by one of two things. It can be a close, defensive struggle, or it can be a shootout. Carolina has only allowed their opponents to score 20 points or more twice this season. San Francisco’s defense has allowed 20 or more points in four contests on the year. The difference being the 49ers sporting a 2-2 record compared to the Panthers 0-2 showing.
There is no doubting that both Carolina and San Francisco feature two of the most physical defenses in the league. It could be argued they have the two best linebacker units in the game taking the field on Sunday.
Both defenses are comprised of excellent talent, and it should be fun to watch Luke Kuechly and Patrick Willis lead their respective units on the defensive side of the ball. Ultimately, the game could come down to which defense capitalizes the most on their opportunities. Both have played a role in each team’s current winning streak.
Two Winning Streaks on the Line
When the dust settles on Sunday, one of these two teams will see their winning streak snapped. Of course, it would be just like a typical rivalry for the game to end in a tie, but the chances of that happening are slim.
San Francisco will be trying for their sixth straight win while the Panthers will be going for their fifth consecutive victory before returning home to take on the New England Patriots on Monday Night Football.
A win will prove to be more crucial for Carolina as they have yet to defeat an opponent with a winning record. The Niners defeated Green Bay in Week 1, but like the Panthers, they have been afforded a winning streak due to a relatively soft schedule. This week’s game could prove to be the toughest contest for both sides.
Whether or not the Carolina-San Francisco rivalry sticks remains to be seen. These two teams haven’t played each other in over three years and depending on how the rest of the year goes (as well as each team’s level of success), this could be the start of something great.
If both teams can continue their current streak of success and carry it over to the subsequent seasons, not only will this rivalry be renewed, it could rank up there with the Cleveland-Denver matchups of the 1980s or the New England-Indianapolis rivalry of the 2000s.
Things may not work out that way, and these two teams could meet every four years (like this season) or every couple of seasons depending on how they finish. Considering the level of competition each faces (New Orleans in the NFC South and Seattle in the NFC West), it is not a far fetched idea to see these two teams play more often based on their placement within their division.
Not only would an old rivalry be restored, but some older Carolina fans will be able to relive past glories and make room for newer ones. The original Panthers team made a statement nearly two decades ago with a win over the 49ers; this year’s team will be looking for that same kind of magic to make another one and spark a playoff run.
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