SAN FRANCISCO — Following the Panthers’ stirring, come-from-behind victory over San Francisco, a couple of well-known Charlotteans stopped by the visitors locker room at Candlestick Park.
Panthers owner Jerry Richardson came by in his customary dark suit, and Golden State Warriors guard and former Davidson star Stephen Curry cut up with quarterback Cam Newton and a couple of other players.
If the Panthers keep winning games like Sunday’s 10-9 decision against the defending NFC-champion 49ers, a lot of other people are going to take notice, as well.
“We don’t need no bandwagon,” Panthers defensive end Charles Johnson. “We know what we’ve got in this group and we just take it one game at a time. That’s how it’s got to be.”
Kicker Graham Gano overcame an earlier miss by connecting on a 53-yard field goal in the fourth quarter, and the Panthers rode another strong defensive performance to make up a 9-0 deficit and post the biggest win in coach Ron Rivera’s three-year tenure.
The Panthers won their fifth consecutive game and answered critics who said they’d beaten up on a series of lesser opponents. They traveled across the country and knocked off the 49ers (6-3), who had won five straight.
“We heard all the naysayers say we hadn’t played anybody and blah, blah, blah. Well, we played somebody today on the road in their place, and beat them,” free safety Mike Mitchell said. “So they shouldn’t have too much to say. We’re relevant. We’re here.”
Gano had made all 12 of his field goal attempts entering the game, but pulled a 48-yarder wide left in the third quarter that would have given the Panthers the lead.
But Gano got a second chance following a long punt return by Ted Ginn Jr., and whistled it through the uprights with 10:05 remaining. Gano said he kicked a few extra balls into the net on the sideline to get out his frustrations after his miss, and was hoping for a shot at redemption.
“I was so angry up until the ball left my foot on the 53-yarder,” Gano said. “I always want another opportunity after a miss.”
The Panthers’ defense did the rest, sacking 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick six times, holding San Francisco to 151 total yards and limiting it to 2-for-13 on third down.
San Francisco had a final chance to try to win it, taking over at its 20 with 1:02 left and out of timeouts. But defensive end Greg Hardy sacked Kaepernick on first down, and cornerback Drayton Florence intercepted Kaepernick’s second-down pass with 23 seconds left to seal it.
The Panthers’ five straight wins are the franchise’s most since the 2005 team won six in a row.
“Defending NFC champions, 5 1/2 hour flight, one of the best running backs (in Frank Gore), the best running quarterback in the league, one of the best defenses in the league, and we come in, 10-9 ballgame, a slugfest,” Florence said. “We’ve just got to keep preparing every week. We’re going to get everybody’s best shot from here on out.”
Rivera, whose job security was in question two months ago, agreed it was his most significant win as a head coach. But he stuck to his next-game-is-the-most-important-one motto.
While his players celebrated in the locker room, Rivera kept an even-keeled approach at the podium. His first remarks were to ask Charlotte reporters whether they’d gone to the Italian restaurant in San Francisco he’d recommended.
“This was big. We’re going to enjoy it. It’s going to make the flight home a lot easier,” Rivera said. “We look forward to getting back to work next week.”
Rivera said the key was the penetration from the Panthers’ front seven, which put pressure on Kaepernick (11 of 22 for 91 yards) and got the 49ers in a lot of third-and-long situations. Of the 49ers’ 13 third downs, nine were third-and-7 or longer.
“Moving the ball wasn’t coming easy for us,” 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh said. “I thought there were plays to be made, and (Kaepernick) made some really good ones. And we put all put our fingerprints on that.
“It’s not a good feeling when you don’t prevail, especially when you had multiple chances to get it done.”
Ginn, playing against his former team, set up Gano with a 24-yard punt return to the 49ers’ 44. Ginn, who had only two catches last season during his final year in San Francisco, punctuated the play by staring at the 49ers’ bench and spinning the ball.
The Panthers netted only 9 yards on seven plays after Ginn’s return before Gano made up for his earlier miss. Rivera said he never hesitated going back to Gano, who is 5-for-5 from 50 yards or longer.
“I’ve got a tremendous amount of confidence in him,” Rivera said. “He’s only got one miss out of all those kicks. So I’m not concerned with him at all.”
The Panthers stumbled through a sloppy first half in which they lost two turnovers, dropped an interception and missed out on a takeaway when officials ruled San Francisco tight end Vernon Davis had not fumbled inside the Panthers’ 10.
Yet, the Panthers trailed only 9-7 at the half, thanks to a defense that kept forcing Phil Dawson field goals instead of allowing touchdowns, and a great play call by offensive coordinator Mike Shula on a touchdown run by DeAngelo Williams.
After Dawson’s third field goal – after the Panthers lost a replay challenge on Davis’ incompletion – put the 49ers up 9-0, Carolina took over on their 20 having gained only 30 yards in the half.
They proceeded to put together an 80-yard scoring drive – capped by Williams’ 27-yard run with 1:52 left in the half.
The Panthers faked on option right with receiver Brandon LaFell, before Williams took an inside handoff heading left, broke two tackles and scooted in for his second touchdown of the season.
“We knew it was going to be one of those dogfights because they had a really good defense. I knew we had a really good defense,” Williams said. “Coming into this game, we said the first team to get to 14 was going to win. Fortunately for us, it only took 10.”
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