SAN FRANCISCO - After his unit had just put together one of the better performance in his three years as defensive coordinator, Jim Mora could only think of one thing. How in the heck could his group possibly have given up a 99-yard touchdown drive at the end of the first half?
The 49ers gave up one long scoring drive to the Carolina Panthers and that was it. Nothing else the Panthers did offensively really mattered, as the 49ers responded with three interceptions in a 24-14 victory Sunday night at 3Com Park.
"The defense kept us in the game," said 49ers receiver Terrell Owens, whose two second-half touchdown receptions provided the winning points in sending Carolina coach George Seifert to his first loss against his former team. The victory improves the 49ers to 3-1, entering a stretch that includes games at Atlanta and Chicago, home against Detroit and New Orleans and back on the road against Carolina. It is an inviting part of the 49ers' schedule, but nobody was overlooking that first one Sunday night against an old nemesis. The 49ers had lost four consecutive games to the Panthers and surrendered an average of 36.0 points in the process.
Said 49ers quarterback Jeff Garcia, "We finally did it. George has had our number the last two years and it's great to finally beat Carolina. We are going to have a tough one down the road at their place, but we're half way to where we were last year as far as victories go. It's a good start for us and we are just going to keep building every single week."
No part of the 49ers is building quite like the defense, which allowed one touchdown against the Panthers. Still, in showing that the 49ers are not completely satisfied with how things are going, that one touchdown is all Mora could think about afterward. "Yeah, things went all right, but I can't believe we gave up a 99-yard drive," Mora said. The Panthers gained 336 yards of total offense on the 49ers, but all they had to show for it was that 99-yard drive.
Cornerbacks Jason Webster and Ahmed Plummer recorded interceptions in the fourth quarter to wrap up the victory. Rookie quarterback Chris Weinke completed 29 of 47 passes for 275 yards, with one touchdown and three interceptions. It seemed as if that 99-yard drive helped fuel the 49ers' defense in the second half.
"It showed we're not invincible," Plummer said. "It wasn't something we wanted to do, going into halftime like that. It definitely got our attention. Possibly, we lost a little of our focus." The 49ers came back to take the lead, 10-7, on the final play of the first half when kicker Jose Cortez connected on a 40-yarder. It was the third consecutive game that Cortez has made a field goal in the final seconds of the first half. That 99-yard drive was nothing compared to what happened to the 49ers on their first series of the second half. Garcia and Owens weren't on the same page on a pass play. Owens cut his route short and Garcia led him. Instead, the ball hit Panthers cornerback Doug Evans, who caught it in stride and returned it 39 yards for a touchdown and a 14-10 lead.
"Mistakes are going to happen and as much as you want to limit those, you have to know (the defense) is out there playing just as hard as you are and sometimes they're going to win," Garcia said. "You just can't allow those occasions to happen too often." Garcia and Owens atoned themselves later in the third quarter on two touchdowns. Owens took a short pass from Garcia and turned it into a 29-yard scoring play to take a 17-14 advantage. On their next series, Owens caught a perfectly thrown pass from Garcia on a corner route for a 20-yard scoring play. Garcia completed 17 of 31 passes for 212 yards. Owens finished with eight catches for 118 yards, nicely atoning himself for his last home appearance, in which he dropped four passes in a 30-26 loss to the St. Louis Rams on Sept. 23.
"Demons don't really bother me," Owens said. "I know the type of player I am. Anyone can criticize me about dropping those balls against St. Louis. I'm a person with short-term memory and I go from game-to-game. "This was a big win, but the best is yet to come. Beating a division opponent like this feels good, but I'll say it again, with this team the best is yet to come."
Part of the reason it was an impressive victory for the 49ers is because they were playing without two of their starters. A third player was ejected late in the first half. With starting linebacker and leading tackler Derek Smith out at least a couple weeks with a torn right medial-collateral ligament, rookie Jamie Winborn got his first career start and led the 49ers with 12 tackles.
Center Jeremy Newberry is also expected to miss two games with a left ankle sprain. Then, late in the first half, left tackle Derrick Deese was ejected after scuffling with Panthers safety Jarrod Cooper. Veteran backup Matt Willig replaced Deese, joining a limping center Ben Lynch on a patchwork offensive line. Lynch sustained a right ankle sprain early in the game and had to play the remainder of the game injured. His status for Sunday's game against the Falcons is uncertain. Even with their problems on the offensive line, the 49ers were able to still be efficient in the running game. The 49ers came into the game with the No. 1-ranked running offense in the league, and they put together their second impressive performance in a row.
Garrison Hearst rushed for 74 yards on 18 carries, as the 49ers gained 150 yards on the ground. Garcia accounted for his usual damage as a double threat, rushing for 20 yards on three carries, including a 1-yard touchdown in the first half, one which he dove between Panthers linebacker Lester Towns and defensive end Michael Rucker for the score. It all added up to the 49ers' most complete victory of the season.
"Our defense really only gave up seven points," 49ers coach Steve Mariucci said. "I thought our kicking game and all the units were solid again. I'd like to see us start faster. There were too many three-and-outs, but I think our confidence level is improving. "I know we are 3-1 and there are not a lot of National Football League teams with better records right now, but we have a long way to go. And I know everyone in that locker room is willing to pay that price to take the next step. Nobody is satisfied."