The Carolina Panthers are about to embark on what is usually their most painful road trip of the year.
The only thing you can say that’s guaranteed to be good about this 250-mile journey is that the Panthers will be going in the right direction - away from Hurricane Florence.
But everything else is uncertain – and in Atlanta, that’s where it usually falls apart for the Panthers. Carolina’s second regular-season game will be such a larger and more dangerous test than its first: This one is on the road, against a better team, in a place that has been Carolina’s personal version of a Scarowinds maze for more than two decades.
On the theory that if you tell the ghost stories first maybe you don’t have to see the ghosts later, I present here, in chronological order, my “Eight Worst Panthers Moments In Atlanta.”
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1. Derrick Graham’s flinch (1995): The whole “Atlanta Curse” began with this. Carolina’s first-ever NFL game was going very well. The expansion Panthers scored a touchdown in the final seconds, were down only 20-19 pending the extra point and had a real chance to win. Coach Dom Capers had a play he liked for a two-point conversion and figured “Why not?”
Graham was why not. The offensive tackle flinched before the two-point conversion began, meaning a play that was going to be run from the 3 would have to be run from the 8. Capers reconsidered and kicked the extra point. The Panthers quickly lost in overtime – the first of their 17 losses in 23 games at Atlanta.
2. Kerry Collins implodes (1998): The last game Kerry Collins ever played for the Panthers was a 51-23 blowout loss in Atlanta, one in which the Falcons scored 21 points in 48 seconds (think about how hard that it is to do).
Collins was a personal and impulsive mess at the time – but he was also the No. 5 overall draft choice in 1995 with a rocket arm who played the game’s most important position. He came back to Charlotte after that game and told Capers, according to the coach: “Kerry said his heart wasn’t totally into what he was doing.”
Capers took this to mean Collins was a quitter. Within a week, Capers had waived Collins, basically throwing away a valuable commodity for nothing. By the end of the season, Capers had been fired himself. Collins would end up getting his personal problems fixed and having a 17-year NFL career.
3. The shutout (2002): Carolina lost 30-0 to an in-his-prime Michael Vick and the Falcons in John Fox’s first season as head coach. It was a fairly predictable result, given that the Panthers’ quarterbacks in this game were Chris Weinke and Randy Fasani.
4. Turner time (2008): The Panthers have often allowed some really big numbers on defense in Atlanta. In 2008, a good Carolina team that would make the playoffs was gashed for four TDs by running back Michael Turner in Atlanta’s 45-28 laugher.
5. Haruki’s head (2012): The Panthers blew a 28-27 lead in the final minute with a couple of enormous mistakes. First, Ron Rivera punted on fourth-and-1 at the Atlanta 45. Carolina already had 199 rushing yards – one more would have sealed the game. Then it got worse, as Matt Ryan threw a 59-yard pass that safety Haruki Nakamura basically let get taken off the top of his head by Roddy White. The Falcons, inevitably, won a final-second field goal after that.
6. Perfect season ends (2015): Carolina entered the Falcons’ game with a 14-0 record. Newton pretended to rock a baby after an early touchdown. Chosen, his first child, had just been born. But everything went sour after that as the Falcons – who had lost 38-0 to the Panthers in Charlotte just two weeks before - upset Carolina, 20-13. “We got our a-- kicked today,” Newton said afterward, “and to a degree we deserved it.” This quote could be recycled just about every year in Atlanta.
7. The 300 (2016): If any receiver ever has a better game against Carolina, no Panthers fan wants to see it. In the aftermath of letting cornerback Josh Norman go in the offseason, the Panthers allowed Julio Jones 300 receiving yards – and Matt Ryan 503 passing yards! – in Atlanta’s 48-33 win.
8. A familiar pattern (2017): The Panthers lost their annual road game at Atlanta for the third straight time last season, and it was costly. A win would have given Carolina a No. 3 playoff seed and a home game. Instead, the defeat pushed Carolina to a No. 5 playoff seed and a road game against New Orleans.
When Carolina loses in Atlanta, it’s very often because the offensive line and/or Newton plays poorly. In this one, Newton – who always wants to beat Atlanta badly because he grew up in the area - threw nine incompletions in a row to start the game and later added three interceptions in an utterly miserable 22-10 loss.
This year is a new season, though. Both teams have problems. Atlanta lost its first game, to Philadelphia. Carolina beat Dallas, 16-8, but in the process lost valued offensive starters Greg Olsen (foot) and tackle Daryl Williams (knee) for multiple weeks due to injury.
The Panthers’ road trip to Atlanta comes earlier than usual and maybe that’s a good sign. Maybe Carolina will catch the Falcons before Ryan and that offense really get hot.
But given the history, it will get scary first.