Memo to Carolina Panthers fans hoping for a Sunday miracle: There is no unlikelier spot for your team to launch a winning streak than the Georgia Dome in Atlanta.
Doesn’t mean it can’t happen. Doesn’t mean it won’t. But it would cut deeply against the grain of history if it does.
The Panthers have traveled to Atlanta for the past 17 years in a row, and 13 times they have limped back to Charlotte with losses.
From the very first game in franchise history – a 23-20 overtime loss to Atlanta in 1995 – the Panthers have endured one heartbreak after another at the Georgia Dome.
Kerry Collins flamed out in Atlanta, never playing another game for Carolina after the Panthers’ 51-23 loss to Atlanta in 1998. Collins felt like quitting the team afterward, and shortsighted coach Dom Capers allowed him to do just that.
A Falcons defensive end named Chuck Smith terrorized Panthers quarterbacks for years. Then Carolina gave Smith a $21.5-million contract and he promptly turned up lame.
Michael Vick used to blister the Panthers in Georgia in his glory days as a young Falcons fan named Cam Newton watched in amazement. Newton went back to his hometown last year and looked like Vick early as Carolina entered the fourth quarter in the Georgia Dome with a 17-14 lead. Then Newton started throwing interceptions, the Dome began shaking on its foundations and the Falcons scored the game’s final 17 points.
On Sunday, more pain seems to be unavoidable for Carolina. The Falcons are 3-0, look like a realistic Super Bowl contender and lead the NFL with a plus-10 turnover margin. The Panthers are 1-2, lost their last game by 29 points and are tied for next-to-last in the NFL in turnover margin (minus-6).
“We’re playing out of a deep hole and every loss we have it gets deeper and deeper,” Panthers wide receiver Steve Smith said.
One big factor in the Falcons’ domination is the Dome itself, bulging with fans who make a huge amount of noise on every third-down play for the opponents’ offense. Everyone in the NFL has had trouble playing there recently, not just Carolina: Atlanta is 27-6 at home since 2008.
“I do think a dome for teams that are used to it or for very, very loud stadiums like Seattle, I think those most certainly do give teams that advantage,” Panthers coach Ron Rivera said.
The Falcons have what Carolina wants: An all-star at just about every key position on the field. A home-field advantage that is not just in name only. A head coach who has won more than 2/3 of his games.
So all that is the bad news for Panthers fans.
The good news is that Carolina, for all its flaws, matches up pretty well against the Falcons. Remember, the Panthers led Atlanta 23-7 at halftime before losing in the teams’ most recent game in Charlotte last December. Smith almost always plays well against the Falcons. Carolina rushed the ball well in both games last year.
If you look at this game strictly going by statistics, it appears the Panthers won’t face a more difficult Sunday the rest of the year. Any early slip-up by Carolina and it could be over by halftime.
But hey, they’ve got the real refs back on the case. It’s a new day in the NFL! Maybe, out of the blue, the Panthers will perform like they did in 2005, when they played a beautiful game against the Falcons and destroyed them, 44-11, in the Georgia Dome on their way to the NFC championship game.
It’s not completely out of the realm of possibility. But it’s awfully close.