The Saints knew they were getting a rival.
The battle most people wanted would have been the Atlanta Falcons going to New Orleans to renew their rivalry for the third time in 32 days. And who wouldn’t want to see that?
The teams split two heated contests in December, with the Falcons winning 20-17 in Atlanta and the Saints returning the favor coming out on top 23-13 at the Superdome on Christmas Eve. They’ve met 98 times dating back to 1967; have played some classic games including a playoff thriller in 1991, and a heavy animosity for each other not too many rivals in the NFL have.
It looked like it was inevitable in the closing stages of the game at Raymond James Stadium on Sunday. The Carolina Panthers lost 22-10 to the Falcons in Atlanta to clinch the NFC South for the Saints, and get the Falcons into the playoffs. All New Orleans had to do to get their bitter rivals in a playoff matchup was stop the 4-11 Tampa Bay Buccaneers one more time to get the win.
Jameis Winston needed to drive his team into field goal range in 100 seconds without any timeouts to intervene with the collision course Atlanta and New Orleans were on. He dropped back into his end zone on 4th and 10 and hit Cameron Brate for a 12-yard first down. And then his #1 wideout Mike Evans for 34 yards on three plays, followed by Adam Humphries for ten more.
And he put one final nail in the coffin with nine ticks left on the clock by dropping a touchdown pass into the hands of Chris Godwin, winning the game for Tampa.
It was his first career touchdown, but it completely shuffled Wild Card Weekend, and maybe the rest of the postseason in one snap. You could almost hear a collective groan when the rookie out of Penn State crossed the goal line.
From Saints fans wanting to avenge 1991, from Falcons fans longing for a chance to quiet Saints fans after last season, from neutrals enticed by the prospect of Matt Ryan and Drew Brees go to war under the pressure cooker playoff atmosphere. But there was one place where the groans might not have been as audible.
The Saints took care of the Panthers twice this season already. They blasted them 34-13 in Charlotte in week three for their first win of the season, and then 31-21 in New Orleans in December. Carolina’s shot at redemption also shines a limelight on an NFL rivalry rarely seen from the outside.
The Saints don’t have a long-term history with the Panthers as with the Falcons, but there aren’t many rivalries in the league as close as this one. Razor thin doesn’t even cover the all-time score, which now sits at 1,014-1,013 New Orleans over 46 meetings dating back to when the Panthers entered the league in 1995.
A solitary point is the only thing separating the Saints and Panthers in 2,764:36 of football. The extra 4:36 comes from October 2003 when the Panthers won an overtime game 23-20, with John Kasey kicking the game winning field goal 4:36 into the fifth frame.
That was the only overtime game between the two teams, but the close games are littered throughout their history. The Panthers lead the series 24-22, but exactly half of those games have been decided by eight points or less. The Panthers have claimed 13 of those 23 one-possession games, and five out of seven involving Cam Newton and Drew Brees.
On the subject of the two franchise quarterbacks, Sunday will be their 14th all-time meeting. Brees holds a 7-6 edge over his Carolina counterpart, with the scores clocking in a little more decisive for the Saints at 386-340, averaging out to 29.7-26.2 New Orleans.
Beyond keeping the games close, the arrival of Cam Newton injected some more hostility into the mix. He was drafted just a few months removed from the Panthers finishing 1-15, and one year after the Saints won their first Super Bowl in franchise history. The Panthers were in sore need of a spark, and the former Auburn National Champion provided.
Newton’s first touchdown pass in the rivalry was a deep bomb to Steve Smith, who was smashed by Roman Harper well after crossing the goal line. A flashpoint ensued.
YouTube: Panthers Steve Smith TD Fight
Three years later, in the middle of a 41-10 romp at the Superdome, Newton was squarely in the center of yet another moment of controversy.
YouTube: Carolina Panthers fight New Orleans Saints
The aspect this feud fails to measure up to other with, and almost surely the reason why it lacks national attention, is success. It’s not the ancient history of Bears-Packers or the perennial postseason showdowns of the Steelers and Ravens. In the history of the two franchises, this is only the second time both teams have even qualified for the same postseason, the other coming in 2013.
They have met eight times in the final week of the season, but one or both teams were already eliminated from playoff contention by kickoff.
The rivalry currently sits as an incomplete game of Connect Four. Tight matchups, obvious bad blood, and two thriving quarterbacks have assembled as three pieces waiting for its fourth. After 23 years, the fourth chip will finally be dropped into its place.
A playoff clash.