In a league where consecutive championships are rare, a game against the team trying to repeat as Super Bowl winners doesn’t always live up to the hype.
Sometimes, though, it surpasses it.
There’s no way to know what Sunday’s game against the Eagles, who are eight months removed from hoisting the Lombardi Trophy, will bring in terms of quality. In terms of quantity, the Panthers have an uncanny history.
This will mark the 19th consecutive season that Carolina has faced the team that is still basking in championship glory. In six of those seasons it was just a preseason matchup, but throw in one playoff matchup (a loss to the Seahawks in 2014) and three seasons when the Panthers twice faced a division foe coming off earning a ring, and Sunday will be Carolina’s 17th game that counts against a reigning champ since the 2000 season.
All told over its first 23 seasons of football, the franchise competed in 20 such matchups, winning eight. They haven’t all been instant classics, but collectively they’ve been good enough that last year’s dramatic 33-30 victory at the Patriots – Carolina’s first victory over a reigning champ since beating back-to-back titlist New England in 2005 – didn’t make the list. Nor did that ’05 victory over the Patriots that was a rematch of Super Bowl XXXVIII 19 months earlier.
Here are the six most notable showdowns over the years, presented in chronological order.
Panthers 13, 49ers 7 – Nov. 5, 1995
It wasn’t pretty, but it was pretty historic.
The first-year Panthers became the first expansion team to beat a sitting Super Bowl champion, traveling to San Francisco for their first division game against the 49ers and heading home with a victory. The 49ers were without quarterback Steve Young, but the league’s top-scoring offense in 1995 still put up 82 points in the two games after falling to Carolina with Elvis Grbac under center. The league’s top-scoring defense in 1995 contained Carolina, but the Panthers defense forced five turnovers, including a key Jerry Rice fumble at the goal line, to shut out San Fran until the fourth quarter.
Panthers 26, Cowboys 17 – Jan. 5, 1997
Taking down the champs is one thing; taking down a dynasty is another thing – especially for a second-year franchise.
The first playoff game in franchise history welcomed a Cowboys juggernaut that had won three of the previous four Super Bowls for arguably still the biggest game the history of Ericsson Stadium – a.k.a. Bank of America Stadium. The Panthers were the better team from the start, forcing Troy Aikman into three interceptions; holding Michael Irvin to one catch before he departed with an injury; and limiting Emmitt Smith to 80 rushing yards. Kerry Collins tossed two early touchdown passes, John Kasay booted four field goals, and the Panthers made history and advanced to the NFC Championship. The Cowboys haven’t been to a conference championship game since.
Panthers 27, Rams 24 – Nov. 4, 2000
“The Greatest Show on Turf” was no joke, but the Panthers had the last laugh in St. Louis in the next-to-last season for the old NFC West.
The Rams entered the game at 7-1, having won 13 consecutive games at home and having scored at least 30 points in 14 consecutive games. The Rams needed 30 on this day but couldn’t get there thanks in part to two Reggie White sacks. Still the Rams led 24-16 in the fourth quarter when Doug Evans’ second fumble recovery set up Steve Beuerlein to throw a touchdown pass and then run in a two-point conversion to tie it. The defense again stymied Trent Green and Co., and a fourth-down conversion by running back Tshimanga Biakabutuka set up the fourth field goal for Joe Nedney – who replaced an injured John Kasay all season – in the final seconds.
Panthers 12, Buccaneers 9 (OT) – Sept. 13, 2003
“Tampa’s heyday was also the high-water mark for the Panthers-Buccaneers rivalry. This early season showdown featured some serious drama that helped catapult Carolina’s first Super Bowl campaign at the expense of the reigning champs.
The Buccaneers, fresh off a Week 1 shutout of the Eagles in an NFC Championship rematch, appeared poised to edge out the Panthers when they found the end zone on the final play of regulation. But that’s when defensive tackle Kris Jenkins came to the rescue, blocking Martin Gramatica’s PAT to force overtime (Gramatica had never missed in 129 career attempts). In OT, Carolina followed up its dramatic Week 1 victory over the Jaguars in Jake Delhomme’s debut by winning it on a John Kasay field goal set up by Steve Smith’s 52-yard punt return.
Packers 30, Panthers 23 – Sept. 18, 2011
Yes it was a loss, but it was the first chance for the home folks to see what they had to look forward to from quarterback Cam Newton.
In the regular season home debut for the No. 1 overall draft pick, Newton set the NFL record for passing yards in a game by a rookie and became the first quarterback in league history with consecutive 400-yard passing games to start a career. Newton’s 432 yards through the air were a franchise record and topped the NFL-tying rookie record of 422 yards that he had tied in Week 1 at Arizona. But Newton also had three of Carolina’s four turnovers, and Aaron Rodgers took advantage.
Broncos 21, Panthers 20 – Sept. 8, 2016
The first NFL season opener to ever feature a rematch of the previous year’s Super Bowl ended much like Super Bowl 50 did – with the Panthers heading home disappointed.
Graham Gano’s field goal attempt from 50 yards went through in the final seconds, but it didn’t count because the Broncos had called timeout just before the snap. The one that did count sailed wide left, ending possibly the most hyped regular season game in Panthers history. Both teams ended up falling not just short of the Super Bowl but also short of even returning to the playoffs.