What the Falcons-Panthers rivalry lacks in longevity it more than makes up for in other key elements.
It’s that final aspect, the emotional connection between these two teams and fan bases that truly separates this rivalry from others in the NFL. Like the interstate highway it’s named after, the “I-85 Rivalry” separates two communities who are more alike than different and who, at one point, were likely rooting for that same team.
For 27 years the Atlanta Falcons and the New Orleans Saints were the only two NFL franchises located in what is traditionally referred to as the Deep South. On Oct. 26, 1993, that changed when the Carolinas were granted the 29th franchise in NFL history.
On Sept. 3, 1995, a little more than two years after the Panthers were founded, the Falcons began their regular season by hosting their newest NFL neighbors in a game that displayed the fracture that is the underlying connection in this rivalry. The game itself would represent the competitive nature of the Falcons-Panthers rivalry, which jumpstarted it quicker than many others.
I-85 rivals: How Falcons fans switched their allegiances
Given the proximity between the two teams, it’s no surprise that a large contingent of Panthers fans made their way to the Georgia Dome for the first game of this series.
“I remember a lot of Panthers fans being there,” Falcons play-by-play announcer Wes Durham said. “I remember a lot of people from Charlotte, who had obviously driven down. And it was already being promoted as the ‘I-85 Rivalry.’ I remember that however they scored the touchdown towards the end of regulation it got loud. It was mostly Panthers fans.”
A native of North Carolina, Durham had recently begun working for Georgia Tech just before the season-opening rivalry game between the Falcons and Panthers. Although he lived in Atlanta, Durham was more interested in watching the Panthers play their first game in franchise history than the team he has done play-by-play for since 2004.
In many ways, Durham represents a specific faction of the fans who attended that first game – those who lived in the transplant city of Atlanta but still had ties to their home towns in the Carolinas. Some who grew up in the Carolinas had previously adopted the Falcons as their NFL team of choice, but they now had their own team to root for.
“It absolutely was that way,” former Falcons coach June Jones said of the split crowd. “Before the Panthers existed there was a lot of Atlanta Falcons fans from Carolina, period. Because of the days of training camp at Furman University and South Carolina.
“So there were a lot of season ticket holders who owned Falcons season tickets all of those years, and they obviously had feelings for the Falcons and now they’re Panthers season ticket holders instead of Falcons season ticket holders. So, I’m sure that all of those were in the stands that day, and I’m sure the crowd and attendance reflected that.”
Although the proximity of the two teams immediately lent itself to the Falcons and Panthers becoming rivals, there was an underlying emotional connection between the two fanbases, which could be felt in the Georgia Dome that opening weekend.
“If the numbers weren’t close, the noise certainly was,” Archambeau said.
Dominating the new kid on the block: ‘Show them what the NFL is all about’
As a member of the NFC West at the time, Atlanta was in a hodgepodge of a division that encompassed teams in three different time zones and on both coasts. The closest geographical rival was the Saints, but they were founded one year after the Falcons and have always been contemporaries.
It wasn’t until the Panthers came into existence that the Falcons felt like they were the older brother in a sibling rivalry. In their 1995 season opener, the Falcons had a chance to make a statement against a new team looking to make a statement of their own.
“It was really just so much pressure,” Falcons defensive end Chuck Smith said (pictured below). “Could you imagine if we lose the first game to Carolina at home? It would have been a nightmare for our fans, even though I think they ended up going to the Super Bowl the next year or something like that, the NFC Championship. I just think that would have been really a black eye on our franchise – to lose the first game at home to our little sisters or little brothers.”
Of course, although the Panthers were a new NFL franchise, many of the players who took the field were veteran players.
Frank Reich, the Panthers’ starting quarterback, was a 10-year veteran. Wide receiver Willie Green, who led all receivers in the game with 121 yards and a touchdown on seven catches, had started 34 games over the previous four seasons. Defensively, the Panthers’ starters had an average of six years of NFL experience.
“That’s certainly what you want as a team going into that very first game, you want to show them what the NFL is all about,” said Falcons defensive end Lester Archambeau. “But reflecting now, as an older guy, that’s hilarious. Because, shoot, they have Kevin Greene on their sideline, a guy that had been playing football for a long time. But you don’t think about that stuff at that time. They’re like, ‘Oh, a new team, they don’t know anything.’
“You go out there just trying to dominate, thinking you should dominate because they’re the new kid on the block.”
For much of the previous two decades, Atlanta had been a bottom-dweller in the NFL. Since 1980, when they finished an NFL-best 12-4, the Falcons had made the playoffs only twice – in the strike-shortened 1982 season and in 1991, when the Falcons beat the Saints on the road in their first and only postseason matchup.
The Falcons finished last in the NFC West seven times during that span, and they were ready to put that behind them in their second season under head coach June Jones.
Panthers came out swinging: ‘They came out hard, they came after us’
As for the game itself, the Panthers came out swinging.
After forcing the Falcons into a three-and-out to start the game, the Panthers marched 65 yards on their opening possession of the season, scoring on an 8-yard touchdown pass from Frank Reich to tight end Pete Metzelaars.
Carolina quickly added to its 7-0 lead. Falcons kick returner Roell Preston fumbled the ensuing kickoff after the Panthers’ first touchdown, giving the ball back to Carolina. The Panthers converted the gift into a 39-yard field goal by John Kasay to go up 10-0 on the Falcons with a little under nine minutes remaining in the first quarter.
“They came into the Dome with a big chip on their shoulder, being that they were the little brothers coming into the division,” Smith said. “We knew that they were going to be pretty good, because when the expansion happened they got a gang of good players. I just remember that game. They came out hard, they came after us.”
By the end of the first quarter, the upstart Panthers built a 13-3 lead over the Falcons. In the second quarter, however, the Falcons’ pass rush came alive and helped Atlanta rally back to tie the game before halftime.
The punishment of Frank Reich: ‘He had no chance’
At the time, the Falcons were primarily known for their run-and-shoot offense under June Jones, but Atlanta’s defenders entered the season hoping to change that narrative and earn some respect of their own.
“The run-and-shoot was all people thought of when they thought of Atlanta,” said Archambeau (pictured below). “So it was points but no defense, and so we had kind of a chip on our shoulder about that aspect … We definitely wanted to start to become a team that would be known for some pass rush and not just another group of guys. Obviously with the sack total we ended up starting the season off hot.”
The Falcons would end the game with a franchise-record nine sacks, and three of those sacks came in the second quarter to help Atlanta turn the tide.
Defensive end Chris Doleman led all Falcons with 3.5 sacks against the Panthers, linebacker Alton Montgomery registered two sacks, Smith chipped in with 1.5 sacks while defensive ends Jumpy Geathers and Archambeau had a sack, apiece.
“They killed Frank Reich. I mean, he had no chance,” said Durham.
Although Reich was often on his back, the Panthers quarterback put together a strong performance. Reich completed 23 of his 44 pass attempts for 329 yards and a pair of touchdowns.
But Atlanta’s ability to stifle the run – Carolina gained just 51 yards on 20 carries – and get after Reich helped it eventually take a 20-13 lead heading into the fourth quarter.
The Panthers entered their first regular-season game looking to make a statement on the road, but it was the Falcons’ pass rush that turned in the eye-opening performance.
“People just didn’t know about us because we weren’t going to the playoffs,” Smith said. “Nah, man, we punished Frank Reich that day. And every time we punished him, we would stand over him talking trash, intimidate him. They got really mad about that. It wasn’t just a fluke, we always killed the Carolina Panthers quarterback no matter if they won or if we won. That game was just like how it always was. They’re our little brothers, or little sisters – I’m not sure which to call them.”
Down to the wire: ‘Someway, somehow find a way to make a play’
Atlanta maintained its lead 20-13 lead for much of the fourth quarter, but the Panthers again broke through against the Falcons defense on their final possession of the game. With little more than a minute remaining in the game, Reich launched a deep pass to receiver Willie Green between two Atlanta defenders for a 44-yard touchdown.
Symbolizing their all-out approach to securing a win in their first ever regular-season game, the Panthers lined up for a two-point conversion and the potential victory instead of opting to kick the extra point to tie the game.
“Let’s go for it,” former Panthers special teams coach Brad Seely told Sports Illustrated’s Robert Klemko in 2016. We’re not here to lose. It set the tone for the season. We’re not here to win in three years. We’re here to win now.”
The Falcons faced the possibility that one play could decide the outcome of the game. If the Panthers converted their two-point attempt, they would have been a minute away from earning their first NFL victory on the road at the expense of a new rival.
“Someway, somehow, find a way to make a play,” Archambeau said of the defense’s mindset at that time. “Make this thing not happen. We did not want to lose that game. I’m talking from ball boy to the head coach, nobody wanted to be the team that lost or the first team to lose to the brand-new franchise.”
Carolina never got the chance to go for that win, however. The Panthers’ fullback, Bob Christian, moved before the snap, drawing a false-start penalty and knocking Carolina back 5 yards.
Now at the 7-yard line, the Panthers changed course and kicked the extra point to tie the game, 20-20.
Christian’s mistake cost the Panthers their opportunity to put all of their chips into the middle of the table, and it ultimately cost them in overtime as the Falcons’ defense again came through.
The perfect play at the perfect time
With players like Smith, Doleman and Geathers on the defensive line, Archambeau, a former seventh-round draft pick, was far from the most well-known Falcons defender heading into the 1995 season. Going into the game Archambeau’s goal was simple: Start the season off well.
“In ’95, I think that was my first year opening the season as a starter … so, for me personally, I wanted to start the season off on a big note,” Archambeau said. “Not that it was the biggest game in the world, but obviously a division game against a new team was a game we really wanted to win. And I personally wanted to start my season off right.”
In overtime, Archambeau accomplished that mission by making the play that would help secure the Falcons’ victory over their new division rival.
Carolina won the overtime coin toss and received the ball first, needing only a field goal to win the game. The Panthers gained 22 yards on their possession before facing a third-and-2 at their own 42-yard line.
As had been the case all game long, the Falcons’ defensive line came through in a pivotal moment. Archambeau (pictured below) came free off the edge to knock the ball loose from Reich and force a turnover that set the Falcons up at the Panthers’ 31-yard line.
“It’s something literally from the first day of training camp you work on,” Archambeau said of the strip-sack. “You wrap, you strip; you wrap, you strip. And that’s just what you do. And it literally just felt textbook. Feeling the girth of the quarterback in my one hand and then just reaching across [and knocking the ball out]. When you do that, you’re never 100 percent sure you knocked it loose. It feels good, you feel like you catch the ball, but you never really know for sure.
“Really, for me, it was one of those ones where the crowd noise lets you know, the reaction is really what kind of lets you know it was what you thought it was. In the moment there’s obviously tunnel vision – you don’t think, you’re just literally reacting as you go. I actually needed the confirmation from another source that it really did happen. It was one of those ones that felt perfect, but you don’t really know.”
A former Saint crushes Panthers’ dreams in first game as a Falcon
Archambeau’s sack was the ninth of the game for the Falcons, and it put his team well within the range of a recently signed kicker by the name of Morten Andersen.
“The story with Morten was he had been cut by New Orleans in training camp and he signed, I think, midway through the preseason with Atlanta because they needed a kicker,” said Durham. “I was working at a talk radio station – it was the old 680 AM at the time, they carried Georgia Tech so that’s who I worked for, and I remember all these guys were talking about training camp and the Falcons need a kicker, and then Morten got cut and it was like the answer to their prayers. So then here’s Morten having a chance to win their first game.”
Atlanta made the attempt a bit easier for Andersen, moving the ball to Carolina’s 16-yard line before sending him out for the game-winning 35-yard field goal.
The Falcons’ first win of the year came against an energized new team hell-bent on making a statement in its inaugural NFL regular-season game. The victory required a complete team effort, and that’s exactly what the Falcons provided.
Atlanta gained 391 yards of offense, led by receiver Eric Metcalf who caught nine passes for 95 yards and ran the ball seven times for another 56 yards. Three turnovers cost the Falcons chances to add to their point total, but the defense’s performance helped keep them in the game.
“I remember after the game Joe Haering, the defensive coordinator, giving me a big-ole bear hug because of the sack-strip and being like, ‘Oh my gosh, Lester, you are my hero,’” Archambeau said. “He was so happy that I made a play that made a difference, and all of us at that point in time had that mentality.”
On the same team no longer: ‘That’s when it’s a rivalry’
It’s fitting that the first game in this rivalry played out the way that it did, as each game between the Falcons and Panthers is often competitive. The Falcons hold a 28-18 series lead in their 46 games against the Panthers, but the average point differential is less than two points with Atlanta scoring 21.2 points per game and Carolina scoring 19.8.
In many ways, that first meeting between the Falcons and the Panthers embodied what the rivalry would become. An emotional connection between two fan bases that had largely been on the same side for many decades, and a competitive matchup that thrust the rivalry into relevance.
“It was just a high-octane game,” Smith said. “It created a huge rivalry. At the end of the game, I was taunting some guys and telling them, ‘I’m never going to turn it down. I’m going to keep treating y’all like a B-I-T-C-H every time I play you.’ So, at that point, from the time I played to the time I left Atlanta after eight years, those dudes hated me with a passion.
“The worst day of my NFL career, honestly, is when I had to sign with the Carolina Panthers, and that was my biggest rival. But you know what they say, the guys that you kick their butts, those are the guys that want you. So when I was on the Panthers, I only played two games – I was really only ever a Falcon but I played two games at Carolina – and when I was even on the team there was animosity between me and Frank Garcia and Wesley Walls. The fact is, they just could not stop looking at me as the guy they used to call The Bounty Hunter. And it was weird, you’re on the same team and they still don’t like you.
“That’s when it’s a rivalry.”