This isn’t the oldest rivalry in the league; that honor is another story for another writer; but it is probably the most competitive. A matchup that began midway through the second season in the No Frills Tough Guy League when coach Jordan Lutton volunteered to leave the Detroit Lions and join the Carolina Panthers after the cowardly departure of one of the NFC West owners from the league.
Our story begins here. It was the second season of the NFTGL, the Saints were en route to an undefeated season when the Lions coach, due to a divisional coaching imbalance, was needed to move to the west, taking over the reins of the Carolina Panthers; a move that placed two additional man games in the path of the Saints.
At this point, the two coaches had never faced each other and in week ten of that season they faced off for the first time in what would be a meeting of titanic proportions. The Panthers won the game 7-6 in what would be the only defeat the Saints would suffer that season; until losing the Man Bowl.
The Panthers could not hold on to that one games glory and lost the next 7 matches in the series, a streak that will likely never be duplicated in this grudge match.
In the sixth season, what is now viewed as the third season, the Panthers acquired a number of key additions to their roster in Stan Humphries and Darren Perry. Two monumental upgrades that, coupled with the discovering of how broken created players could be at kick returning, led the Panthers to the first ever undefeated season and one of the only twenty points or more defeats of the New Orleans Saints in NFTGL history.
The following season the Saints acquired Brett Favre via trade and pulled off one of the greatest upsets in league history. Throwing for 378 yards, Favre led the Saints to a 42-8 victory over the Man Bowl champions to open the season. The game ended with Favre getting injured on the final play of the game, and for him, the final play of his season. The Panthers would go on to shut the Saints out in their following matchup 28-0 and again 20-7 in the playoffs, en route to winning the Man Bowl for the second consecutive season; a feat that the no one in the league had ever accomplished.
After losing seven straight games the Panthers had turned around and won four of the next five meetings and two Man Bowls and the Saints were beginning to question whether their coach could ever get them over that peak.
Over the next two seasons the Saints and Panthers each split their seasonal series with each other; the Panthers accounting for two of only three losses the Saints would suffer over this time period. They would not face each other in the playoffs with the Panthers struggling to get past the NFC Superior teams and make it to the Man Bowl. The Saints would go on to win each of those Man Bowls and tie the record held by the Panthers.
In that period the Panthers shut out the Saints once again. Something no team but them has ever done, and they’d now done it twice.
At this point the NFTGL became dormant. It’s usual every weekend play had over time become every other weekend and lessened still as people tired of the constant need to play. This lasted for approximately three years.
In January of 2012 the league reformed and the Panthers and Saints owners’ returned to fight the fight once more. The two coaches planned and practiced to better themselves more than they’d ever done in previous seasons and in week 8 they would meet up once more. Both teams were 7-0 leading into the match and this first match would be the first step in determining who would win the NFC Fluff. The Saints scored early to take a 7-0 lead but were stymied through the rest of the first half while the Panthers were able to tie the score in the second quarter. In the third quarter the Panthers took a 14-7 lead and it looked like they’d hold on for the win. In the final minutes of the fourth quarter Saints defensive captain Eric Allen dove into the end zone to tackle Randy Baldwin for a safety; the ball popped out and Eric Allen picked it up for the game tying touchdown.
In overtime the Panthers kicked off and the Saints began one of the longest drives they’ve ever maintained; and what would be the only drive left in the game. With less than 20 seconds left in overtime and on third down, the Saints called their field goal formation. Their coach didn’t feel good about where their kicking game was at the time and wanted to go for the glory. He called a fake field goal pass and the play worked. Michael Haynes dove for the pass and caught it. He got up and ran to the 5 yard line and was tackled as time expired.
They tied. A blemish on the record of each coach that would be the only blemish the Panthers would encounter as they drove the rest of the season with only wins. Defeating the Saints 17-7 later that season the two teams would meet once more, this time in the Man Bowl.
Though they’d played each other in the playoffs once before, and they’d each combined to play in the prior four Man Bowls, they’d never faced off in that game.
The Saints were coming off of two huge playoff man game victories over the Chicago Bears and Tampa Bay Buccaneers while the Panthers had been gifted a much easier path through the first overall seed. The Saints momentum led them to a 14-3 half time lead and the onlookers of the league could see things going much like the Saints previous two playoff games. However, the Panthers would not lay down and coach Jordan Lutton reached down within himself and started the second half off explosively. Scoring fourteen points to none in the third quarter, the Panthers took a lead that they would only extend, shutting down the Saints offense throughout the entire second half and winning their league record third Man Bowl Championship.
With the reforming of the league, the league commissioner had set out to create a prize. A championship belt that the Man Bowl winner would be able to take with them and hold until they defended their title the following season; this belt would become a highly coveted item and the Saints coach wanted it. For six months his correspondence with the Panthers coach would be filled with comments and pictures of the belt.
This lead both coaches to do even more research and practice in preparation for season two than they’d done the year before.
In August of 2012 the league met again for its second season since reforming and the Panthers and Saints were slated to face each other in week 1. The Saints struck early once again and led going into the fourth quarter 14-7. The Panthers would not be dismayed and would tie the game up and send it to overtime. Having suffered through a tie to start their rivalry the previous season the coaches vowed to not let that happen again. In the end, the Panthers won with a field goal to start their season off 1-0.
The Saints had now failed to defeat the Panthers in 5 straight games, dating back to before the collapse of the league and had to find a way to get over this slump because in week nine they would meet again.
The Saints once more took a 14-7 lead into the fourth quarter and the Panthers offense was having no issues moving the ball all day. With the aid of some timely turnovers, the Saints were able to keep the Panthers off the board and pull out their first victory in almost 4 years against the Panthers.
Their story doesn’t end there however. The Saints would win their division that year and the first overall seed and a bye in the playoffs. The Panthers would face the longer road as the fifth seed. As the Panthers moved past Chicago and Tampa Bay, the Saints were able to overcome the Atlanta Falcons and the two teams once more would face each other in the Man Bowl.
The Man Bowl rematch was set. Carolina vs New Orleans. Carolina struck first with a touchdown and the Saints countered by returning the kickoff for another touchdown. The Panthers continued to control the clock and the ball and kicked a field goal to end the half going up 10-7. They received the ball in the seoncd half and after a long drive went up 17-7. The Saints then repeated their earlier effort and returned this kick back for another touchdown. It was now the fourth quarter and the Saints attempted an onside kick, which the Panthers recovered and returned to the Saints thirty yard line. With about three minutes left in the game and the lead, the Panthers looked to seal the game with another score. Craig Erickson dropped back and threw the ball to his wide open receiver in the end zone. Eric Allen, seemingly possessed by a greater power than his coach, sped towards the ball and intercepted it in the end zone. Jim Everett then took a shot down field and connected with Quinn Early for a huge gain, putting the Saints into field goal position. With time remaining they attempted to drive and with no options left, Jim threw the ball into the end zone, in double coverage and Quinn was able to come down with the ball again. With under 1 minute remaining the Panthers were trailing for the first time in the game and had a lot of field to cover. Though Erickson was able to connect down field, time expired and the Saints had won.
The Man Bowl Championship Belt now resides with the New Orleans Saints coach until they defend their title in February of 2013.