Let's take a look back at this rivalry that goes back to 1995 and even longer for some of us. The I-85 rivalry is the rivalry between the Carolina Panthers and the Atlanta Falcons (aka The Dirty Birds). For those of you that don't know, it is called the I-85 rivalry because that is the Interstate that separates the two cities by four hours or so. I've made that drive at least 50 times in my lifetime. You may wonder if Atlanta really is our oldest rival. Yes, we have played the Saints one more time than the Falcons; however, the Falcons were the very first team we ever played. That first game was in 1995 and was played in Clemson, SC. This game was played in Clemson because BOA (then called Ericsson Stadium) was under construction. While tailgating, you were sure to see the Big Cat himself, Jerry Richardson, driving around in his golf cart telling anyone who could listen “Thank you, thank you, thank you.” Starting at QB for us that day was Frank Reich (now the San Diego Chargers Offensive Coordinator) and he outplayed Falcons QB Jeff George (the Jay Cutler of that time) that day by throwing for 329 yards and two TDs. The Panthers played their hearts out that day but it was not meant to be as the Falcons prevailed in overtime 23-20. But our Panthers and the I-85 Rivalry was born. All-time, the Falcons hold a big lead in the series which currently stands at 24-15. This Sunday, with everything on the line, will be our 40th match up and against our oldest rival.
And let’s face it, the Atlanta/Charlotte rivalry is bigger than just the two teams. For me and many, it is personal. When I only eight years old, my Matthews Pop Warner football team played in the Optimus Bowl (Pop Warner Championship) vs. Atlanta, in Atlanta. I remember the players on the other team conveying to us that they’d kill us because we were from little ol’ Charlotte and they were from "Hotlanta." I had my first TD as a running back on a 38-yard touchdown up the middle that glorious and stormy day. It was raining and the field had at least three inches of mud on it. I think I ran 32 yards in 3.2 minutes. That is one of my best childhood memories and we did roll north on I-85 with the victory. That was 1979. Some of my best friends to this day were with me on that team. and it is then I realized that nothing forms a bond like a common “enemy.” Yes, this rivalry is bigger than the two franchises.
And how many times in your life have you heard: “Charlotte is just like Atlanta was 30 years ago?" Well my response is always: “Atlanta must have been a great place to live 30 years ago, huh?” Again, it is personal at least from our side of things. Yet to make our animosity worse, many Falcons fans don't view us as a rival. Which makes it even more personal. I could probably use therapy when it comes to sports, I'll admit.
Now back to the actual rivalry: The early years were marked with some pretty close games including some nail-biting scores like 21-17, 9-6 and 14-19. In our first six years, the Panthers trailed the all-time series by only two games (seven games to five). Pretty even up to that point and pretty good for an expansion franchise.
Then came Michael Vick. He was drafted first overall in the 2001 Draft and the I-85 rivalry took an uneven turn. The Vick-led Falcons beat the Panthers seven straight times before the we were to win against them again (There was one other game the Panthers won in that stretch, but Vick did not play).
However, in the 2005 season, the Panthers drafted Thomas Davis primarily to play spy vs Mike Vick. The series turned a bit to the Panthers favor as the Panthers won three out of the next four games. But it turned out that the best person to stop Mike Vick was actually Mike Vick. He had bad newz in 2006 and never played for the Falcons again. And since the time that Mike Vick moved on, the Falcons lead the series nine games to six.
Watch this last minute of the famous F-Bomb game and tell me you are not hyped for Sunday:
With all the history and all the rivalry, this game is bigger than big. For some of us it is personal. After all, It is for the right to say Carolina is the first team to ever be back-to-back NFC South Champs. Oh yea, It is also for a chance to host a playoff game and most of all it is for a chance to stick it to our oldest rival. Leave your thoughts on this Sunday’s match-up. Are you ready? Leave me your thoughts below.