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Carolina Panthers haven’t arrived, but they’re on the way

What happened Sunday would have unfathomable in September or early October.

Carolina won one of the biggest games in franchise history.

The Panthers had won four straight against bottom-feeders. On Sunday they played one of the NFL’s top teams, and beat them in a stadium in which the home team doesn’t lose. San Francisco lost one game at Candlestick Park last season and, before Sunday, one at home this season.

The Panthers beat them 10-9.

This was a coming out for Carolina. If fans around the country wondered what the Panthers offer, they found out.

San Francisco scored the game’s first nine points. Carolina turned the ball over twice in the first half while the 49ers did not turn the ball over. The game was going the way many fans expected it to. The favored 49ers were taking shots at the underdogs, landing blows. The Panthers were moving around, trying to generate an offense of their own.

Finally, they did. The game turned when, with 1:52 remaining in the first half, Carolina drove 80 yards for a touchdown.

The drive’s eighth play was a testament to power and beauty. Receiver Brandon LaFell lined up left and slipped behind Cam Newton. Newton was going to take off right on a read option. He could keep the ball or pitch it to LaFell, who ran with him.

Or he could pretend he did.

Newton handed the ball to running back DeAngelo Williams. While Newton and LaFell were running right, Williams went up the middle and left. He broke two tackles and he scored. Now it was a game.

Kudos to whomever designed the play.

The 49ers could have used a play of their own. they would not score again. Their offensive line is among the league’s best if not the league’s best. But the Panthers sacked Colin Kaepernick six times. By the end of the game, Kaepernick was throwing as if he expected to be hit. And he was usually right.

If you want a statistic that explains the game, it’s this: The Panthers converted seven of 17 third downs, the 49ers two of 13. The 49ers converted 15 percent of their third-down attempts Sunday. Coming in, they had converted 40.2.

This game was old-school, and that’s a compliment. The NFL creates rules that hinder the defense and enhance the offense. Offense sells tickets, bumps up ratings and wins games.

But Carolina-San Francisco was a throwback. There should have been clumps of sod sticking out of helmets and frozen breath coming out of the mouths of players. The hits were hard and the pretty offensive plays infrequent. The tougher team, the stronger team and the more poised team would win.

Can you imagine saying such a thing about the Panthers early this season? Remember when they were 1-3? It was Oct. 6. But it sounds like a story you’d tell your kids when you want to impress them with how hard life was in the olden days.

Newton was 16 of 32 for 169 yards, and his longest pass was 19 yards.

But when he had to hit a receiver, he did. When receivers dropped passes, he acted as if he didn’t notice. The 49ers played hardball and the Panthers played it harder. San Francisco plays a big game every week and the Panthers hadn’t played one for five seasons. Yet, amidst all the noise and all the big hits, it was Newton and the Panthers who refused to come undone.

That the Panthers have won five straight and jacked their record to 6-3 does not mean they’ve arrived. But by any standard, they appear to be on their way. The last time their defense was as effective as it is this season was – let’s go to the record book – never.

Their front seven was outstanding and their maligned defensive backfield was right there with them. The Panthers are tough, rarely make mistakes and they don’t panic. The longer the game went, the stronger they became.

The offense was not outstanding, but they weren’t going to be. This was not that kind of game. This was a game in which you score enough to win.

If you were with the Panthers through the lean years, 2013 is your reward. No idea what will happen at home next Monday against New England.

Won’t it be a thrill to find out?

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