After an electrifying game last Sunday against New Orleans – complete with a deluge of rain, a miraculous touchdown and clinching a spot in the playoffs – it didn’t take long for many Panthers fans to get hyped about traveling to Atlanta this Sunday to watch the Panthers take on the Falcons.
There’s also excitement in celebrating success that was initially unexpected: The Cardiac Cats began the season 1-3, and there were questions about head coach Ron Rivera’s job security.
The thrill has grown this week as Panthers fans are galvanizing to cheer on their team to a stadium less than 250 miles away.
Before the Saints game, Rivera and defensive coordinator Sean McDermott asked Panthers fans to get noisy.
“Knowing that our fans are out there, it brings an electricity to our players,” Rivera had said. “Our players feed off that energy obviously, and they’ve done a great job responding to our fans. It really has been neat. Our fans have been outstanding this year, and hopefully we can get a real big boost.”
The fans pulled through: Bank of America Stadium was deafening Sunday.
The Panthers will need the fans’ support again this Sunday as they face an opponent that’s beaten them at the Georgia Dome five years in a row.
A win for the Panthers would mean the team’s third NFC South championship since the division was created in 2002. That would mean a first-round bye and home game in the second round of the NFL playoffs.
The Falcons, with a 4-11 record after losing to San Francisco 34-24 on Monday, can’t make the playoffs but would love to spoil their rival’s fortunes.
Historically, the away game against Atlanta has been a good draw for Panthers fans, team spokesman Charlie Dayton said. “For obvious reasons, people have traveled well to that game,” Dayton said. “We hope they do. And in big numbers.”
The Blue Man
The Panther blue Lycra suit has dried out from last Sunday’s gullywasher at Bank of America Stadium and on Saturday will be on its way to Atlanta packed away in Nate Donovan’s luggage.
Sunday, after he squeezes into the second Morphsuit he’s ordered from China, he’ll no longer be Nate Donovan of Charlotte. He’ll be the “Blue Man,” hoping to find safety in the thousands of Carolina Panther fans expected to make their way to the Georgia Dome for the season-ending game against the rival Atlanta Falcons.
The Blue Man, 26, who grew up in Charlotte and has been a fan since the Panthers’ first snap in 1995, is making the trip with girlfriend Marissa Black of Charlotte – and Marissa’s parents, Bob and Cynde Black.
Rival fans razz him, but he can say anything he wants “because of my anonymity. They just think it’s fun. I’m not an in-your-face fan. If I can survive Chicago, I can survive Atlanta.”
The Roaring Riot
The Roaring Riot charter bus will make its sixth annual trip to the Georgia Dome in support of the Panthers. This year, the busload has burgeoned to 80 fans.
Most of them will be sitting together in the stadium, too. “Having that many people grouped together, sitting together, at an away game is unlike any other experience,” said Zack Luttrell, 36, who organizes the Roaring Riot. He said the Falcons fans are usually “pretty hostile.”
But that’s not stopping the crew, many of whom are native Charlotteans, from making a ton of noise for the Panthers. “We’re all really proud of our city and to be from here and still live here.”
A family affair
Robert Capers and son Grant got drenched at Sunday’s victory over the New Orleans Saints. That didn’t stop Grant, who turned 9 on Friday, from shouting for his favorite players: quarterback Cam Newton and linebacker Luke Kuechly from the top deck.
At home in Columbia, his bedroom walls are covered in posters of both players along with receiver Steve Smith and defensive end Greg Hardy. Father and son drove up last weekend on a lark with their Panther ponchos, hoping to buy two tickets off the street. They found two in section 522.
After the downpour and a late comeback to win 17-13, Robert didn’t know what he’d do to top that excitement.
So he called his brother, Darrhyl Capers, in Atlanta, and Sunday they will be a divided family – Robert and Grant for the Panthers versus Darrhyl and his 18-year-old twin sons, Cameron and Phillip, for the Falcons.
Early Sunday, Robert and Grant, wearing a new Kuechly jersey he got for his birthday, will make the drive to Atlanta. They plan to give the other Capers a hard time.
And they’ll make the trip to Charlotte if the Panthers earn a home playoff game. “Worst case, if we don’t get tickets, we’ll find a sports bar and enjoy the Charlotte experience,” Robert said.
A Subaru hits the road
Greg Brown of Beckley, W.Va., didn’t much like football – professional or college – until the Panthers were born in Charlotte.
He started following the team on TV, then in 2002 bought two PSLs and on Sundays made the 3 1/2-hour drive to Charlotte for home games. He’s missed only a Christmas Eve game in that time.
Now, in his Subaru plastered with Panther stickers, magnets and flags, he’ll drive 7 1/2 hours to Atlanta on Sunday, picking up a friend in Charlotte along the way.
“I’d be going if we were the 4-11 team,” Brown said. “But with so much on the line, it makes for a better trip.”