Atlanta is only 240miles south of Charlotte, the cities' NFL teams play in the same division, and I know I speak for many Charlotte residents when I say I am less than fond of Atlanta -- to put it mildly.
The Panthers and Falcons have many of the ingredients necessary for a rivalry, yet they don't have much of one. You don't sense a buzz around Sunday's game any greater than one around another Panthers' NFC South contest -- or for that matter, a game against Dallas. This rivalry lacks punch for several reasons, including:
--Although the cities are so close, there is a clear demarcation for their fan bases: The border of Georgia and South Carolina. I'm sure there are a few Falcons fans in South Carolina and a few Panthers fans in Georgia, but not many. There's no established two-team areas like Howard County, Md. (Redskins-Ravens), central Pennsylvania (Eagles-Steelers) or Connecticut (Patriots-Jets).
--The teams have never met in the playoffs, and only once met in a late-season regular season game when both were in playoff contention.
--While many of us dislike Atlanta for its sprawl, heat and myriad other reasons, Atlantans seem indifferent to the Carolinas.
--DeAngelo Hall does not play for the Falcons anymore.
--Before the Panthers were born, Atlanta used to claim part of the Carolinas as Falcons Country -- at least it tried -- aided by the annual preseason Backyard Brawl between the Redskins and Falcons.
The Panthers have played the Falcons 28 times in their history, according to Pro-Football-Reference.com, more than any other team in the NFL except for the Saints (also 28). The Falcons are the only team to have played the Panthers more than 10 times and own a winning record against them (17-11).
The teams have split the last three season series and in early December, 2005, played a huge game won by the Panthers in Charlotte (The Falcons were 7-4 heading into that game; Carolina 8-3). But this rivalry does not have much more juice than that.
Seriously, when the 2009 schedule was released in the off-season, which game intrigued you more: Sunday's match-up or the Nov. 1 rematch against the Cardinals?
Taking a broader look, the Panthers don't seem to have a top rival yet at all. They enjoyed a brief rivalry with the 49ers (1996-97) and many fans consider the Cowboys to be a big rival (They're not. The Cowboys have three longtime rivals in the NFC East to worry about and, while the Panthers and Cowboys have twice played in the postseason, they have not done so in six years). This lack of a true rivalry has less to do with fans and players, and much more to do with the fact that the Panthers have only been around 15 seasons and have played in two different divisions already.
Falcons-Panthers stands the best chance of developing into a true rivalry for the Panthers. It's not there yet.
That said, all this research has got me thinking: Where does Panthers-Falcons rank among all NFL rivalries today? For the sake of this exercise, I'm considering only division rivals. So, although the NFL features some juicy modern rivalries between non-divisional opponents (Patriots-Colts, Steelers-Patriots), lets consider the 48 divisional rivalries.
I have divided them into four tiers, using the following criteria: Tradition, big games, proximity and flare/true hatred. This is just one man's opinion:
Comments: Four of these are old, traditional rivalries that still have some spunk today. The fifth, Ravens-Steelers, has only been around for 13 years. But the last decade of that rivalry has been so nasty, it rises to join the elite.
Comments: Many more division rivalries with history and hatred, but without the aura of the four in Tier 1. Ravens-Browns is on here because the city of Cleveland will never forgive Art Modell for moving the Browns, even after he has sold the team and retired. Colts-Titans was an elite rivalry from 1999-2003. After a brief hiatus, it could be back this year.
Comments: The remainder of the traditional rivalries, plus a few new rivalries that have flared up or have the potential to rise. Steelers-Browns and Bengals-Browns are here because these rivalries are really only a decade old. The old Browns moved to Baltimore; I don't care what the logos and colors say. Niners-Rams was something in the 1980's, but where has it gone? The same could be said about Dolphins-Bills in the 1990's.
Comments: Too many new teams, franchise movements and new divisions in the NFL since the mid-1990s make for some rivalries that lack any pizazz.