The “I-85 Rivalry” has produced quite a few memorable games since it began in 1995, and the Falcons-Panthers rivalry has taken on an added zeal since Atlanta native Cam Newton arrived in Carolina.
Atlanta and Carolina have squared off 48 times in their history with the Falcons holding a pretty commanding 30-18 record against the Panthers. The Falcons have won six of their last seven games against the Panthers, but Carolina figures to have a pretty imposing team in 2019.
As is the case with any rivalry, it’s tough to pick just five games to highlight on a list such as this so we’ll begin with a few honorable mentions. The Falcons’ playoff-clinching win in the 2017 season finale deserves recognition, as does Atlanta’s impressive 45-28 win during Matt Ryan’s rookie season in which Michael Turner ran for four touchdowns.
But there are five games that really stand out in this rivalry, so let’s get to them.
5. Sep. 3, 1995 (Falcons earn overtime win to begin rivalry)
What better way to kick off this list than with the game that kicked off the rivalry. The Falcons earned a 23-20 overtime win in front of a raucous Georgia Dome crowd in their 1995 season opener against a Panthers team playing their first ever NFL game.
The Falcons carried a 20-13 lead into the fourth quarter thanks to a pair of touchdown passes by quarterback Jeff George, but the Panthers answered with a 44-yard touchdown pass from Frank Reich to Willie Green with just 26 seconds left in the game. Initially, Carolina lined up for a 2-point conversion and attempted to win the game on a single play, but a false start penalty knocked them back and the Panthers settled for the extra point.
In overtime, Falcons defensive end Lester Archambeau sacked Reich – Atlanta’s ninth sack of the game – and jarred the ball loose. The Falcons recovered the fumble and a 35-yard field goal by Morten Andersen sent the Panthers home with a loss in their first game.
4. Dec. 11, 2011 (Matt Ryan leads 24-point comeback)
By the 2011 season, Matt Ryan had helped the Falcons establish themselves as one of the league’s top offenses. With numerous fourth-quarter comebacks under his belt to that point, Ryan had fully cemented his “Matty Ice” nickname. During a Week 14 matchup against the Panthers, he again proved why that nickname was so fitting.
Despite jumping out to a quick 7-0 lead in the first quarter, the Falcons quickly found themselves trailing the Panthers and entered halftime down 23-7. The script completely flipped in the second half, however. The Falcons intercepted Cam Newton twice in the third quarter, helping Atlanta climb back into the game. Matt Ryan threw three touchdown passes in the second half, including two to rookie Julio Jones in the fourth quarter, helping the Falcons complete their 24-point comeback and earn a 31-23 victory.
3. Dec. 27, 2015 (Falcons put an end to Panthers’ perfect season)
A case could be made for any of the top three games on this list to be No. 1. Given the ultimate result of the 2015 season for the Falcons, this particular game lands at No. 3. There’s no doubt, though, that the Falcons’ unlikely 20-13 victory against the Panthers in Week 16 was a major bright spot. Carolina had shutout Atlanta 38-0 just two weeks prior, and Cam Newton looked virtually unstoppable while the Panthers’ defense was equally imposing.
At home, however, the Falcons proved to be up to the task, handing the Panthers their first loss of the season and ending their dreams of a perfect record. A low-scoring, defensive battle for much of the afternoon, this game swung on a 70-yard touchdown pass from Matt Ryan to Julio Jones in the third quarter that put the Falcons up 14-10. Falcons fans likely remember that play as Jones leapt over All-Pro linebacker Luke Kuechly to come down with the ball and race to the end zone.
The 2015 season was a forgettable one for Atlanta, but this victory remains one of the best against the Panthers if for no other reason than it ended their hopes at football immortality. Isn’t that what a rivalry is all about?
2. Dec. 18, 2004 (The Michael Vick dive game)
As someone who was in the building during this Saturday evening in December, I can say this is one of the loudest games I’ve ever heard in the Georgia dome. It might have also been the peak of Michael Vick’s popularity in the NFL and Atlanta. He truly seemed like a magician.
While the final moments of this game are iconic, they sometimes overshadow what was a very entertaining back-and-forth game. The two teams entered halftime tied at 10, but the Falcons jumped out to a 24-10 lead in the third quarter thanks to a 6-yard touchdown run by Warrick Dunn and a 12-yard touchdown pass from Vick to Dez White. Carolina erased that lead in the fourth quarter, however, and took a 31-24 lead with 3:37 left on the clock after a 5-yard touchdown run by Nick Goings. Suddenly, a game that seemed in hand for the Falcons was about to slip away.
On a fourth-and-goal at the 12-yard line and only 1:37 left in the game, Vick once again proved why he was so special. With his receivers covered in the end zone, Vick sprinted up the middle of the defense and dove towards the goal line, just managing to keep his knee aloft long enough for the ball to cross the plane. After a review, the referees ruled that it was indeed a touchdown, sending the Georgia Dome into a frenzy. A 38-yard field goal by Jay Feely won the game in overtime, and the Falcons clinched the No. 2 seed the following day.
1. Oct. 2, 2016 (Matt Ryan and Julio Jones put on a clinic)
This 48-33 victory in Week 4 of the 2016 season earns the top spot on this list purely because of how unstoppable the Falcons looked. In a season in which the Falcons’ offense was among the best in NFL history, they might have been their most dominant in this victory.
Matt Ryan threw for a franchise-high 503 yards and four touchdowns in the victory, and Julio Jones also set a Falcons record with 300 yards and a touchdown on 12 catches. Jones was virtually un-guardable in this game, breaking free from defenders on nearly every snap. The Falcons had touchdown drives of 99, 98 and 92 yards in this game, and they punted just three times.
The game was also never as close as the final score may indicate, as the Falcons held a 34-10 lead in the fourth quarter before three garbage-time Panthers touchdowns closed the gap. Fans might also remember Deion Jones’ hit on Cam Newton during a two-point conversion in this game that knocked the Panthers’ quarterback out of the contest.
For just over three hours the Falcons simply destroyed their division rival, providing fans with reasons to believe anything was possible with this offense. And for that, this game deserves to be No. 1.