CHARLOTTE – When the NFL kicked off its 100th season earlier this year, who it scheduled in its opening game was a no-brainer. Combined, the Bears and Packers have 22 NFL titles, 65 Hall of Famers and decades of drama.
"Having played in it, I think it's the greatest football rivalry there is," said former Bears linebacker and former Chicago defensive coordinator Ron Rivera. "There's so much history to it. I was just fortunate to have been part of it."
After first meeting in 1921, Chicago and Green Bay have faced off 198 more times, making their matchup the most played in NFL history. They've been in the same conference since the league adopted the format in 1933, and they've sat in the same division since 1970. So while North Carolina rightfully claims basketball's greatest rivalry thanks to the tense eight miles that separate Durham and Chapel Hill, pro football's comparison comes from the Midwest.
"The Bears and Packers precede NFL divisions. Their rivalry is just a little bit different," said tight end Greg Olsen, who spent the first four years of his career in Chicago. "I don't think anybody can match that. The NFC South is not the same."
Which isn't a slight. It's just reality.
The NFC South was born in 2002. Since then, the Bears and Packers have played 36 times — or put another way, 18 percent of their matchups have come in that timeframe.
All of that is a long-winded way of admitting this: With key division games ahead for the Panthers the next couple of weeks, I had hoped to write a story that clearly identified the team's most-hated NFC South rival. Instead, I came away more confused than when I started.
Carolina is 18-31 all-time against Atlanta.
At least I wasn't alone.
"That's tough," fullback Alex Armah said before pausing to think for a good five seconds.
"If I had to answer, I'd say the Falcons cause of proximity."
Makes sense. But Armah is also from Georgia, which makes him more personally invested, just like several Panthers before him. See: Davis, Thomas; Johnson, Charles; Newton, Cam.
So let's ask someone who knows the NFC South well but who's new to the Carolina side of things.
"From afar, I would say Atlanta cause Atlanta would usually give Carolina problems," said former Tampa Bay defensive tackle Gerald McCoy.
Overall, he's right, as the series histories show.
Panthers' All-Time Results Against NFC South teams:
The Panthers' youngest "rival" is the Bucs, who were in the NFC Central when Carolina joined the NFL in 1995 (pour one out for the old NFC West featuring the Panthers, Falcons, Saints, Rams and 49ers). Still, in the early-to-mid 2000s, Carolina/Tampa Bay was the most intense, physical game in the division.
Carolina is 24-15 all-time against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
It was around that time when the Saints were struggling. Then they added head coach Sean Payton and quarterback Drew Brees. But since that pairing began in 2006, Carolina leads the overall series, 14-13. That's actually right in line with the all-time series.
Look again at the chart above and you'll see the Panthers hold just a one-win and 12-point advantage over the Saints after 49 games. That and recency bias could make New Orleans feel like the Panthers' biggest division rival.
"I don't know if the Saints are anybody's rival more than if they're at the top of the division, you need to knock them off," McCoy said of the two-time defending NFC South champions.
Added safety Tre Boston:
"You don't have to hate. I guess you're supposed to, but you hate whoever's the best that year. You don't care who loses; you just want to attack the best. Usually, if you're the best, the second-best is like, 'OK, we've got to put them down.'"
The Panthers trail the all-time series against the Saints, 25-26. Carolina has played New Orleans more than any other team in its history.
Really, this rivalry stuff seems more like fodder for media and fans. It's fun to get excited about, but players seem to have a different perspective. They are, after all, expected to be professionals.
"That's one of the top five things that I learned when I got into this league is there's a lot more respect, a lot more for caring for player on player. You can talk trash to somebody and after the game say, 'Good game.' Well, when I used to talk trash in college: 'You still want to throw these hands, we can after the game,'" said Boston, a UNC product.
"So everyone in our division is a rival, but it's not like, 'Ah, I hate the players, too.' In college, you hate the players, too. You go to Duke; I don't like you. Like (former Blue Devil cornerback) Ross Cockrell, it took me a long time to like him."
Boston appeared to be joking because, despite his ties to Duke, Cockrell is one of the Panthers' most respected players. But Boston then used another teammate to make another good point when he looked a few lockers down and saw cornerback Javien Elliott.
"Javien played for the Bucs. Am I supposed to hate Javien when he comes to us? I can't. It's the NFL," Boston said. "Is Javien supposed to hate those guys (on the Bucs)? He just got done playing a few years with them."
So then who's the Panthers' biggest rival? There's no obvious answer, because at best, it's a constantly moving target. All six games are essential no matter what helmet the other team is wearing. Think about this: The Panthers went 14-4 in the NFC South when they swept through the division with an unprecedented three-peat from 2013-2015. Since then, they've gone 7-13. Improving on that record against all three teams is the easiest path back to the postseason.
"With the exception of having been involved in the Bears/Packers one, wherever else I've been, it's whoever else is in our division," Rivera said about rivalries. "When I was in Philadelphia with the Eagles with Andy (Reid), it was all those (NFC East) teams. In San Diego, when I was with Norv (Turner), it was all those (AFC West) teams. That's kind of been the approach that we've taken here.
"If you take any of those games lesser than any other, you're in trouble. Whether it's Tampa, Atlanta or New Orleans — they're our biggest rival."