What it means: The season didn't begin the way the Panthers expected and it ended the way they hoped it wouldn't: with a loss to an NFC West opponent in both cases. Their loss to the 49ers kept them from getting a chance in the conference championship to avenge a 12-7 loss to Seattle in the season opener. The Panthers had their chances early, but failing to score a touchdown on third down at the half-yard line and a 7-6 lead in the second quarter was crushing. What shouldn't be lost is the Panthers turned a 1-3 start into a 12-win season -- including a 10-9 victory at San Francisco -- and an NFC South title. The foundation is there for future playoff runs.
Stock watch: Quarterback Cam Newton's first trip to the NFL's big stage didn't go quite as well as he would have liked. He had a few moments. His 31-yard touchdown pass to Steve Smith was perfect. He also had a few moments in which he threw high -- one resulting in a first-quarter interception -- and held the ball long enough to get sacked. He finished with two interceptions and five sacks and a quarterback rating of 79.9 that just wasn't good enough.
Crabtree the difference? Much of the talk all week was how 49ers wide receiver Michael Crabtree, who didn't play in the first game between these teams, would be the difference. But it was Anquan Boldin who kept coming up with huge plays. He had eight catches for 136 yards, including a 45-yarder to all but put this one away.
Captain blunder: Cornerback Captain Munnerlyn got beat on Boldin's 45-yard reception that went to the Carolina 2 in the third quarter. Boldin was wide open and Munnerlyn was lucky to catch him to save the touchdown. Quarterback Colin Kaepernick punched it in with a 4-yard touchdown run after a 2-yard loss. He then threw it in Carolina's face by copying Newton's Superman touchdown move.
Sack party? The Panthers sacked Kaepernick six times in the first meeting, but had only one on Sunday. The lack of pressure from a team that had 15 sacks in its previous two games was crucial.
On second thought: Still not sure why the Panthers didn't let Newton attempt a sneak on third down at about the half-yard line in the second quarter. They had a chance to take a 14-6 lead. Instead, they lost a yard and settled for a field goal. Newton already had 40 yards rushing at that point.
Smith's day: I'd say Smith was close to 100 percent. If there was any doubt how valuable the wide receiver is to this offense, he showed it in the first half, catching four passes for 74 yards. His 31-yard touchdown catch with tight coverage on the left side to give Carolina a 7-6 lead was a play no other receiver on the team would have made. To San Francisco's credit, the defense shut him down in the second half.
What's next? Next up is free agency, where signing defensive end Greg Hardy will be a priority. Inking Newton to a long-term deal also will be key.