The Carolina Panthers have been around now for 13 seasons in the National Football League.
They started out in the NFC West, a geographically-challenging position for them to be in, and had to contend with the St. Louis Rams, San Francisco 49ers, and another misplaced team, the Atlanta Falcons.
This created a natural rivalry between the Panthers and Falcons since the teams were relatively close together in a conference that had teams scattered across the United States.
The trip between Bank of America Stadium and the Georgia Dome is relatively simple.
All one has to do is get on Interstate 85-South in Charlotte and stay straight for about five hours until they find themselves in busy metropolitan Atlanta. This allows fans of both teams to commute back and forth easily in one day, causing a greater gathering of the opposing team’s fans in the stands at the games.
Take into consideration the fact that Charlotte and Atlanta are both economic hotbeds, resulting in a mass displacement of the population, and you figure to have a hefty number of the opposite team’s fans living and working in each city!
Aside from all of the geographic and economical factors that play a part in this rivalry, there have also been a few football games played.
This Sunday marks the ninth time the Falcons have made the trip up to Charlotte to play the Panthers in this millennium.
The Panthers have a staggering 2-6 record in the previous eight games, with three of those losses coming in their home opener.
The Falcons have outscored the Panthers 133-93 in the meetings, and have held the Panthers to 10 or fewer points in five of them.
The poor results since the turn of the century are not indicative of the early years of the franchise.
The Panthers beat the Falcons at home in each of the team’s first three seasons.
Opening Day 1996 saw the opening of Carolina’s newly opened Bank Of America Stadium.
The Panthers won their first game in the stadium 29-6 over the Falcons and went on to the NFC Championship Game that year.
In the first three years of the franchise’s existence, the Panthers were 4-2 against the Falcons, and finished 5-5 in the 90’s.
Since 2000, the only times the Panthers have beaten the Falcons at home occurred in years in which the Panthers went to the playoffs, 2003 and 2005. The Panthers outscored the Falcons a combined 47-9 in those two games.
The Panthers and Falcons’ rivalry was intensified when the NFL realigned the conferences before the 2002 season.
The teams were joined in the new NFC South by fellow east coasters Tampa Bay Buccaneers and a team from the deep south in the New Orleans Saints. While the entire NFC South has budded into a churning rivalry amongst all of the teams, the most fierce rivalry still rests on I-85.
This season has a different look to it than most of the seasons past in this rivalry.
The Falcons are sporting a new quarterback in rookie Matt Ryan, a first round pick in this summer’s draft.
The Panthers have Jake Delhomme back under center after losing him in Week 3 last year, ironically enough in the Georgia Dome. The Falcons picked up LaDainian Tomlinson’s impressive back up in San Diego, Michael Turner, in the off-season.
The Panthers picked Oregon running back Jonathan Stewart in the first round of the draft.
The teams have gone back and forth with acquisitions and losses on their rosters in the last few years as both teams struggle to return to the playoff form they both reveled in during the early 2000’s.
After the first three weeks in the 2008 season, there is a literal grid lock among three teams at the top of the NFC South.
The Panthers, Falcons, and Buccaneers all sit at 2-1, with the Saints chomping at their heels at 1-2.
While the South is no NFC East, the talent levels and expectations for all of the teams are just about equal, providing the chance for a very interesting race this year.
This makes Sunday’s match up that much more important, with an early battle for first place in Charlotte.
Their lone loss came against fellow division rival Tampa Bay, and their showing in that game was not promising, losing 24-9.
In their two wins, Michael Turner has rushed for a combined 324 yards and five touchdowns, averaging over seven yards per carry. In their loss, Turner ran for only 42 yards on 14 carries and did not find the end zone.
The Panthers started the season off a surprising 2-0 in the absence of star wide receiver Steve Smith.
With victories in San Diego and at home against Chicago, the Panthers looked as though they could regain their place near the top of the NFC.
A trip to Minnesota last week put a temporary hold on that however, as the Vikings sent the Panthers spiraling back to reality.
The Panthers were totally shut down in the running game and the offensive line collapsed, allowing five sacks and being whistled for numerous false starts.
While it is only one loss in a young season, the performance of the team has their home fans on the ropes, hoping furiously that last week’s game isn’t a sign of things to come; a sign of more of the same.
For the time being, it looks as though this season’s edition of the Panthers’ rivalry with the Falcons will return to its meaningful form.
The last couple of seasons have seen the teams meet with lowered importance as both squads have looked to rebuild.
After Sunday, there will be a clearer picture atop the NFC South, for the time being, thanks to a couple of teams connected by I-85.