The NFL has too many exhibitions. We all know that.
But if you are going to play somebody in a fake game, it might as well be the NFL’s best real villains – the New England Patriots.
The Carolina Panthers do just that Friday night in Foxboro, Mass., where they continue their unusual and occasionally controversial series against New England.
The two teams have only played a half-dozen times over the Panthers’ first 19 years in games that actually have counted, and yet four of those games hold a firm place in Panthers history.
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There was the Super Bowl. Robbed Gronkowski. George Seifert’s final game. And the Panthers’ first-ever road win.
And just in 2014, there was Brandon LaFell leaving Carolina for New England – where the wide receiver claimed in an interview that the Patriots work “a little harder” than Carolina – and the Patriots snatching injured running back Tyler Gaffney when Carolina tried to sneak him through waivers.
There is plenty to make an NFL fan’s blood boil about the Patriots – Bill Belichick’s “I’m smarter than all of you” news conferences, the Spygate controversy of 2007 and the gleam in Tom Brady’s perfect smile, to name three.
But what Panthers coach Ron Rivera would actually like to do is emulate the Patriots.
“It’s a team you use as a measuring stick,” Rivera said. “I’ve always compared our teams to them. ... Last year, being fortunate enough to play them on Monday night and win the game, I thought sent a great message to the rest of our team: ‘Hey, we are relevant because we beat one of the elite teams.’”
Rivera said when he thinks of the Patriots three things come to mind: “You think about Coach Belichick, you think about Tom Brady and you think about their consistency.”
That’s one thing the Panthers have never had: consistency. It is well-known by longtime Panthers fans that the team has never had two playoff seasons in a row, which is why Rivera said Carolina is at least “a year away” from doing a decent New England imitation. The Patriots have made the playoffs 10 of the past 11 years, gradually turning into football’s New York Yankees in terms of the fact that almost every NFL fan either loves or hates them.
But when the two teams have met, it’s been very even. They have split their six real games, 3-3. In order of importance to Panthers fans, those games were:
1. The Super Bowl. Following the 2003 season, the Patriots edged Carolina 32-29 in the most significant game the two teams have ever played. Jake Delhomme threw for 211 yards – in the fourth quarter! – and directed three touchdown drives in the Panthers’ final three possessions. And Carolina still lost because Brady was better.
2. The Immaculate Perception. In a remarkable Monday night game played in Charlotte last November, Carolina got a huge touchdown drive from Cam Newton and then held off the Patriots 24-20 when Luke Kuechly bear-hugged tight end Rob Gronkowski in the end zone on the game’s final play. Officials at first threw a flag, then decided Brady’s throw (intercepted by Robert Lester) was not within Gronkowski’s reach and waved off the flag.
Newton, among many that night, was very worried Brady was about to beat the Panthers at the end just like he had in the Super Bowl. Remembered Newton later: “I said jokingly ... I’ve seen this story before. I’ve read this book before.”
3. The Seifert Bowl. In George Seifert’s last game as the Panthers’ coach, more than 50,000 empty seats mocked the team in Charlotte as New England decimated the Panthers 38-6 in the last game of the 2001 season. Carolina finished 1-15; New England won the Super Bowl.
4. Redemption (kind of). Two years after the Super Bowl, the Panthers upset New England 27-17 in Week 2 of the 2005 regular season in Charlotte. That game was the first indication that Carolina was again ready to go to the playoffs (the team would finish 11-5).
5) Kasay’s Kick. Carolina’s first-ever road win came in 1995, when John Kasay won the game in overtime, 20-17.
6) Who Cares? In the only really nondescript game in this rivalry, New England beat Carolina 20-10 in 2009, with Brady outdueling Matt Moore (which figures).
Brady and Newton are supposed to both play around two quarters Friday night, so for a glorified scrimmage this is a pretty good one.
It’s still not real, so it’s doubtful it will add much to the legacy of this rivalry.
But with these two teams’ strange shared history, you never know.