Nobody likes having their lunch money taken. Not only does it deprive you of your lunch, but it creates a sense of powerlessness that is hard to get past. For most, this kind of torment ends around middle school but, for the Panthers, a new bully has emerged in recent years. And like with any bully, until the Panthers are able to stand-up to them in a meaningful way, the New Orleans Saints are going to keep coming back for more.
Not too long ago, the Panthers were very much a match for New Orleans as the two franchises fought for power and control in the division. Their fight for the division title in 2017 went to the bitter end, and Carolina spent the first half of 2018 staying right on the heels of an NFC Championship Game-bound Saints team. But, over the course of that time frame, the Panthers have lost – and kept losing – to the point the scales of division supremacy tipped completely over.
The Panthers have lost four in a row to the Saints and eight out of their last nine matchups, including playoffs. If the Panthers want to take a step to being seen as legitimate playoff contenders in the NFC, then they need to buck that trend on Sunday.
The Saints’ dominance of the NFC South has arguably been one of the biggest catalysts in the declawing of the Panthers: Their 2017 sweep of the most recent Panthers team to make the play-offs signaled a marked shift in power from Charlotte to the Big Easy. Something that some Saints players have been more than willing to point out.
Even though the Tampa Bay Buccaneers one-upped the Saints by winning last year’s Super Bowl as a Wild Card, the fact remains that New Orleans is still the standard-bearer for the division. And even with major personnel losses, their 38-3 stomping of the Green Bay Packers in Week One was an illustration of the superiority of the system and roster the Saints have built.
“You can change out some of the key personnel – great players like Michael Thomas and Drew Brees – but (head coach) Sean Payton over the years has developed a building, an organization that’s completely aligned. That they all know what they’re doing,” said Panthers head coach Matt Rhule. “Everybody knows how they play football: They’ve got a great defense, (quarterback Jameis Winston) looked awesome … They have a great offensive line. It will be a tremendous challenge.”
Although making definitive proclamations about a team’s makeup after Week One would be foolish, the makeup of this Panthers team seems different than the ones that have lived under the Saints’ boot over the past several seasons. Compared to the 2019 squad that fell apart after being bandaged together, and the fledgling 2020 squad that had much yet to learn, the 2021 Panthers displayed the identity of a tough, athletic defense and an at-times explosive offense in their Week One victory over the New York Jets.
However, while the Panthers should certainly be positive about their first 1-0 start since 2018, if the Panthers are going to take a step from their 5-11 2020 season, then they are going to need to win games against bigger, scarier opponents than the Jets. Ultimately, they need to earn the right to suggest they won’t be tormented by the Saints again.
The players certainly haven’t tried to talk themselves up that way: When asked about the Saints being a thorn in their side, players this week spoke mostly in platitudes about focusing on themselves and the week-to-week of the season.
“Obviously they’re a very good team with a lot of really good players, but at the end of the day it’s all about us,” said running back Christian McCaffrey, giving an answer that would surely earn a perfect score in media training.
“Ultimately, we always have a chip on our shoulder, I feel like, as we’re trying to build the team to where we want to be at,” said right tackle Taylor Moton. “Even if it’s quote-unquote a rival, division opponent, whatever it is, we just want to be as prepared and ready to go as we can be regardless of the opponent.”
Cam Newton once declared before a decisive 2018 game that New Orleans’ taunts had been “disrespectful”, to the point he kept a bottle of wine and a broom in his locker for an entire season, but this new-look Panthers team has a very different flavor to it. It would be easy to mistake this for meekness or submission, but for a lot of this young roster the rivalry against the Saints isn’t a deep scar at all.
Of the Panthers on the 2017 roster that lost three times to the Saints only Christian McCaffrey, Shaq Thompson, JJ Jansen and Taylor Moton remain. For 26 players, almost half of the Panthers’ roster, this will be their first ever game against the Saints as a Carolina Panther. After all, it’s hard to feel the pain of something you’ve never experienced.
Despite this fresh start, the cycle, and the Panthers not being taken seriously as NFC South contenders, will go on and on if the Panthers allow it. But there’s one quick way to end the cycle, and to elevate themselves within a powerful division: Punch the bully back.
Even as the Panthers preach self-improvement above all things, a win against the mighty Saints would hardly go unnoticed in the greater NFL world. Surpass the kings of the hill and prove the more physical team on Sunday, and Carolina would – for the first time in a long time – be able to say they can stand alongside the top teams in the NFC South, and not blink while doing so, even if Matt Rhule is keen not to frame the game in that way.
“I’m not trying to show anybody anything. We have a competitive group of guys, they want to go win,” said Rhule. “Nothing from the past carries over to the future. Obviously, the Saints are a great team, they showed that last week. We’re just completely focused on Sunday and playing our best game.”
After years of being powerless, Sunday marks an enormous opportunity for the Panthers to seize power within their division. And how satisfying it would be if they were able to rip it straight out of the hands of their schoolyard bully.
(Top photo via Sean Gardner/Getty Images)