Panthers make statement: 'We're relevant'

SAN FRANCISCO -- Few expected the Carolina Panthers to win, even though they came into Candlestick Park with a modest winning streak and a solid defense. They were one of those teams people were talking about as a nice feel-good story, but not being taken completely seriously.

That was 1995.

The Panthers beat the 49ers 13-7 in a smashmouth gem to become the first expansion team in NFL history to defeat the reigning Super Bowl Champions.

Fast forward to Sunday's game at Candlestick Park. The Panthers came in with a modest winning streak and a solid defense. They were one of those teams people were talking about as a nice feel-good story, but not being taken completely seriously.

Like 1995, they became relevant in a hurry.

Carolina's 10-9 smashmouth victory over the reigning NFC champions was the fifth straight win -- and sixth in seven games -- for a team that until a few weeks ago hadn't been above .500 since 2008.

It was a victory that could elevate the Panthers (6-3) from a potential playoff threat to a potential Super Bowl contender.

"There's really something special going on in here I haven't seen in a long time, not since my days at Baltimore," said defensive tackle Dwan Edwards, who was with the Ravens from 2004-09. "There's a feeling nobody can beat us."

It wasn't that long ago that there was a feeling this team couldn't beat anybody. They were 7-9 and 6-10 in head coach Ron Rivera's first two seasons, and they lost three of four to start 2013. They were 2-14 in games decided by seven or less points since 2011, including 0-2 this season.

When the game was on the line, either a bad bounce or penalty or turnover turned a potential win into a loss.

On Sunday, the Panthers fumbled twice in the final 2 minutes, 12 seconds -- and recovered the ball both times. The first one by quarterback Cam Newton, who was trying to run time off the clock, made Rivera a bit nervous.

"I about threw up," he said.

Then a defense that gave up critical plays in close games a year ago stepped up with its sixth sack and then a game-clinching interception by cornerback Drayton Florence, as if to say the past will not haunt them in the present.

Or future.

"We're relevant," safety Mike Mitchell said. "We're here."

If you weren't on this team's bandwagon before, don't jump on now.

"Man, we don't need no bandwagon," defensive end Charles Johnson said. "We know what we have in this group."

But on many levels this was a statement for the Panthers. The naysayers reminded before Sunday that their five wins came against teams with a combined 8-33 record. They reminded they hadn't beaten a team with a winning record, even though they were beating opponents by an average of about three touchdowns.

The 49ers (6-3), who had won five straight, were considered one of the top two or three teams in the NFC. They were playing at home. They were supposed to win.

"We finally played somebody," Mitchell said. "We won a tough game on the road. It was a real big win for our team, boosting our confidence and solidifying for ourselves that we are for real."

That's what this win meant for the Panthers. That they are for real. That they are relevant. That they can dream about the Super Bowl, even though Rivera won't let them look past the next game.

"People can still doubt us, but we are going to keep on lining up and playing football," linebacker Thomas Davis said. "Because we are for real."

The defense definitely is for real. It held a San Francisco offense averaging 27 points and 342.9 yards a game to three field goals and 151 total yards -- 45 in the second half.

One of those field goals came after officials ruled what appeared to be a fumble by 49ers tight end Vernon Davis an complete pass. Another came after a muffed punt.

This was total domination, the way the defense Rivera played for with the '85 Chicago Bears dominated.

"I can say everybody brought their A-game, and we needed it," said Johnson, who had 1.5 sacks and two tackles for loss.

The offense wasn't great, but it had 111 yards rushing against one of the other better defenses in the NFC. Twenty-seven of those came on a late first-half touchdown run by DeAngelo Williams that cut San Francisco's lead to 9-7 at halftime.

"Coming into this game, we said that the first team to get to 14 points was going to win, and fortunately for us it took only 10," Williams said with a huge smile.

There were lots of smiles, from the players to team owner Jerry Richardson, who hung around long enough shaking hands to run into reporters for the first time this season.

That's the way it was in 1995. Unfortunately for that team, it began 0-5 before catching the nation's eye with a victory here that propelled the Panthers to an expansion-record 7-9 season.

This team caught fire early enough that, Newton said, "the sky is the limit for us as a team."

That aura of gloom and doom that hung over this team early in the season has been lifted. Remember the opener? Williams fumbled inside the Seattle 10 in the final minutes of a 12-7 loss that could have been different.

Remember Week 2 at Buffalo? The Bills scored on a 2-yard pass with 2 seconds to go to win 24-23.

That's what this team was destined to be remembered for at one point. Now it has a chance to be remembered by wins such as this.

"The Carolina Panthers needed this type of win," said Newton, whose passer rating of 52.7 was his second-lowest of the season. "Going back, looking at what type games we've won, we won games where we put up 30-plus points and won handily.

"We haven't had this type of win under our belt consistently."

They still haven't won close games consistently, but this one came at a good time with a "Monday Night Football" game against the New England Patriots next and two games against NFC South leader New Orleans among the final seven games.

"We are going to get everybody's best shot from here on out," Florence said. "We would like to win them all. It might not happen, but we're going to prepare like we've got something to lose."

Because now they do.