Carolina's 10-9 road win over San Francisco was huge on a lot of levels, as it moved the Panthers to 6-3 and very much in the playoff race with their fifth straight victory. (If the playoffs started today, the Panthers would be the No.5 seed and play at Dallas in the first round). Here were seven of the most significant things the Panthers did to win it:
1) A close win -- finally. The Panthers were going to have to show they could win a close game at some point to really differentiate themselves from previous teams, and they finally did it. In a nailbiter not decided until the final 30 seconds, coach Ron Rivera improved to 3-14 in games decided by seven points or fewer.
2) The defense. Has it ever been better? Has Colin Kaepernick (91 yards passing, 1 INT) ever looked that bad? The Panthers had him under pressure the entire afternoon, and defensive ends Greg Hardy and Charles Johnson were seriously disruptive. Carolina held the 49ers to three field goals, and two of those came after turnovers that were no fault of the D. And the second half was a scoreless masterpiece pitched by the Panthers with Drayton Florence's interception the exclamation point. San Francisco had 45 total yards in the second half. And get this: six different defensive players shared Carolina's six sacks. Now that's a great team defensive effort.
3) Mike Tolbert. As I tweeted after Tolbert ran over San Francisco safety Eric Reid and knocked him from the game: "Mike Tolbert vs. brick wall. Who you got?" The best response came from someone wondering if there would be a second brick wall behind the first, just in case. Tolbert showed class coming over to check on Reid after trucking him. His most significant play of the game, however, was an enormous fumble recovery after Jonathan Stewart's fumble on Carolina's very shaky last drive (which also included a fumbled snap).
4) Graham Gano. I know he missed his first field goal of the year earlier. But he more than made up for it with a 53-yarder, on the road, to give Carolina the only points of the second half in a game where any points were gold coins.
5) Cam Newton/Steve Smith connection. Both had their issues. Cam looked nervous early, throwing everything high and completing only one of his first seven passes for five yards. His lone interception was an awful throw. Smith made a terrible drop on a third-and-12. But several times later in the game they connected for big first downs, and it was No.1 to No.89 on the pass that set up Gano's field goal. Smith led the Panthers with six catches for 63 yards.
6) DeAngelo Williams. He scored the game's only touchdown on a vintage DeAngelo cutback run (that's the above picture), bouncing off one tackler for a 27-yard TD. A quiet game otherwise, but that TD made the difference and was also the only play that went over 20 yards from the line of scrimmage for either team in this old-school defensive struggle.
7) Ted Ginn Jr. With a couple of key catches plus one big punt return to help set up that final field goal (he had three punt returns for 65 yards altogether), Ginn got a little revenge against his former team. In fact, this was a game about redemption in several ways -- Florence's interception made up for his earlier turnover when he let a partially blocked 49er punt brush his leg and Gano, of course, missed the 48-yarder before nailing the one from 53. My streak of picking six consecutive Panther outcomes ended -- I had picked the 49ers to win, 17-13 -- and far more significantly, the Panthers had won a game that will now give them and especially that defense some very deserved attention.
Now comes New England Monday night -- the Patriots are 7-2 and will come in off a bye (as the 49ers did). Have you noticed how often the Patriots come up at key moments in Panther history? They were the final nail in George Seifert's coffin, whipping Carolina 38-6 in front of 50,000 empty seats in Charlotte to end the Panthers' 1-15 season of 2001. They edged the Panthers 32-29 in the 2003 Super Bowl. And now this. In the meantime, here's a picture of Hardy sacking Kaepernick taken by our own Jeff Siner, as the above picture was as well.