When the Carolina Panthers entered the league in 1995, it was clear that the NFL wanted the Atlanta vs. Carolina series to become a fierce rivalry. The NFL scheduled Carolina’s first-ever regular season game in Atlanta Sept. 3, 1995 and it started off great, the Falcons won the game in OT, 23-20.
One year later, the Falcons opened up Carolina’s new stadium in Charlotte, getting hammered by the Panthers, who were on their way to their only NFC West Division Title, and an appearance in the NFC Championship Game.
The biggest problem with the Carolina-Atlanta rivalry, also known as the I-85 rivalry, is for the most part when Atlanta was successful Carolina was mediocre, and when the Panthers peaked, it seemed like the Falcons had their mediocre years.
The last few years, as Carolina continued to excel and consistently fight for division titles, a new rivalry emerged with Tampa Bay. It happened almost by accident, as the Bucs players taunted the Panthers through the media in 2003 and 2004, and continued as fights broke out on the field and games were constantly won or lost in the fourth quarter. The I-85 rivalry took a back seat.
There were however some very good games in the Falcon-Panther series, which included Michael Vick and his ability to constantly make SportsCenter on ESPN everytime he played Carolina. It seemed as if no matter how good Carolina’s defense was, they never could contain Vick.
As a matter of fact, Marty Hurney openly admitted that Michael Vick was the sole reason the team decided to draft LB Thomas Davis. The Panthers felt as they needed an exceptional athlete to “spy” Vick and it was reported that the Panthers told Davis that he had one job on this team: To contain Michael Vick.
Although Carolina has enjoyed more success than Atlanta since entering the league in 1995, Atlanta has had the upper edge in the series head-to-head. Atlanta leads the series 17-11.
In the second meeting between the two teams in 2008 the Falcons crushed the Panthers in Atlanta 45-28. The Panthers used the embarrassing loss to propel them to a 3-1 finish to the 2008 season, clinching their second NFC South Championship.
Most sportswriters and analysts are predicting the Falcons and Panthers as the two favorites to fight it out for the NFC South in 2009. The emergence of Matt Ryan and Michael Turner on offense for Atlanta intensifies the I-85 rivalry.
Turner and Panthers RB DeAngelo Williams have their own competition going, as they will be two of the top RBs chosen in most fantasy drafts.
Coaches John Fox and Mike Smith are regarded as two of the best in the NFL. Both are well-respected and compliment each other with how well they are both able to get their players to perform at the maximum of their abilities.
Going into the 2009 NFL season, the feeling is that the I-85 rivalry should have no problem getting renewed. I expect both teams to perform well throughout the regular season, and how great would it be for both teams to make the playoffs and meet up in the NFC Championship game? The best part about that scenario is knowing that Vick won’t be there to completely humiliate the Panthers.