The Carolina Panthers are many things: An organization that likes to talk trash in a way that almost invariably backfires weeks or months down the line, a team that has managed to take a generational talent in Cam Newton and make him look somewhat pedestrian at times, and a team with a frustrating habit of figuring into Atlanta’s postseason hopes late in the season.
This is by no means an exhaustive list, but here’s a look at the ways the Panthers have thrown a wrench into (or enabled) the Falcons in their quest for the playoffs. Results based on whether the Falcons won or not, which is sort of important to us.
December 24: Won 33-16
Considering the Falcons humiliated Carolina earlier in the season when Julio Jones went for 300 yards, this was probably the best year Atlanta’s ever put together against Carolina. They also earned their 10th win against the Panthers, which was enough to essentially put them in the playoffs.
December 13: Lost 38-0
December 27: Won 20-13
The Falcons suffered a truly humiliating defeat in mid-December to the same Panthers team that ended Mike Smith’s coaching career in Atlanta. They bounced back after Christmas to edge out Carolina, but they ultimately fell to 8-8 with a loss against the Saints in the final week of the season.
Considering the two margins, the Panthers could credibly claim to have been the better team in 2015, which was I guess backed up by their Super Bowl berth that year.
December 28: Lost 34-3
Atlanta was fresh off a 30-14 beatdown of the Saints, and it was reasonable to think that Mike Smith might survive the year if the Falcons could do the same to the Panthers. The Falcons would have been in the playoffs, somewhat incredibly, if they had beaten Carolina and gotten to 7-9, by virtue of their two wins in two tries over the Saints.
Instead, Carolina knocked the Falcons out of the playoffs and snuck in at 7-8-1, and also ended Smitty’s career in Atlanta with a whimper. It was an ugly, one-sided loss that would be exceeded by that 38-0 beatdown in 2015, but in terms of its impact on both the team’s playoff hopes and coaching situation, it was the worst loss Carolina has ever handed Atlanta.
December 29: Lost 21-20
Atlanta was 4-12 at the end of this year, but that close Week 17 loss still stings.
December 9: Lost 30-20
An interesting footnote I had forgotten about for this excellent, doomed 2012 season: All three of Atlanta’s losses in the regular season were to NFC South rivals, including this deeply disappointing effort against Carolina that thankfully did not knock Atlanta out of the #1 seed in the NFC.
December 11: Won 31-23
It is not an exaggeration to say that this win...actually didn’t matter that much. The Falcons, even at 9-7, would have snuck in to the playoffs past the raft of 8-8 teams that made up the conference that year. In that way, the landscape looked at lot like it did now, except the Falcons hopefully aren’t about to lose in the first round 24-2. To the Giants.
December 12: Won 31-10
The Falcons also beat the Panthers on January 2, which is just outside of the bounds of this particular blog post, which put them at 13-3 and made them the first seed in the NFC. They inarguably would have been better off heading in as a lower seed and not running into the Packers, who ultimately won the Super Bowl, so early. Thanks for nothing, Carolina.
Before 2010, the Falcons hadn’t actually played Carolina in a December game since 2005. As you can see, though, the Panthers have had a habit of featuring in big games late in the year for Atlanta, whether or not they’ve directly led to (or ruined) the playoffs for the Falcons. This year will be no different, and hopefully the end result will be much closer to 2016 than 2015.