CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) -- The Panthers have allowed the second-fewest points in the NFL, the second-fewest yards and have forced 21 turnovers this season.
And now they're figuring out how to win close games.
That's a dangerous combination for a team on a five-game winning streak and playing with a ton of confidence.
''That's our style of defense,'' defensive end Greg Hardy said. ''... We dominate. We take what we want. We do what we want.''
The Panthers were once known as the team that couldn't hold a lead. They've lost 10 games since 2011 after leading in the fourth quarter, including the first two this season against Buffalo and Seattle.
But somewhere along the line, things have changed.
The Panthers are no longer afraid to lose games; they're eager to win them.
They've developed a noticeable swagger.
On Sunday the Panthers (6-3) proved they could play with the big dogs, making two defensive stops in the final four minutes to beat the defending NFC champion San Francisco 49ers 10-9 for their fifth straight win.
''That's very important, in light of what happened earlier in the year in Buffalo,'' Panthers coach Ron Rivera said. ''It tells these guys that have the potential to do things.''
The Buffalo game is one that still stings.
The Panthers allowed rookie quarterback EJ Manuel to move his team 80 yards for the winning touchdown in the final 1:39 without any timeouts.
Carolina has since won six of seven, and its defense ranks among the top five in almost every major statistical category.
The Panthers have been particularly tough after halftime, allowing just 24 second half points in their six wins.
Only two teams this season have scored more than 15 points against the Panthers.
For those critics who felt like Carolina's record was a mirage given its previous five wins had come against teams with a combined 8-33 record, Sunday showed that the Panthers are for real.
Carolina's front seven was expected to be strong coming into the season with the addition of defensive tackles Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short, the team's top two draft picks.
But questions lingered about a young and inexperienced secondary and the injury to starting free safety Charles Godfrey in week two only heightened that concern.
But others have stepped up.
Rivera said one of the major differences from last year's defense has been players' familiarity with defensive coordinator Sean McDermott's system.
''For a lot of these guys, it's their second or third year in the system and at that point you see guys playing very comfortable and very fast and that makes a difference,'' Rivera said.
Said McDermott: ''There is an identity within that guys have bought into and now they are reaping the benefits of their hard work.''
But it's not just the veterans that are producing.
The Panthers are getting contributions from their rookie class.
At one key point during Sunday's game the Panthers had five rookies on the field - Lotulelei and Short, linebacker AJ Klein, cornerback Melvin White and safety Robert Lester. White and Lester are undrafted free agents.
''We're playing young guys who have learned very quickly,'' Rivera said. ''These guys know what we want them to do.''
Defensive end Charles Johnson said the Panthers just had to learn to get over that hump and win games.
And now they have.
''We had too many games where we ended a close game with a loss,'' Johnson said. ''We have to keep reiterating to ourselves to get over this hump and win it on defense. Everybody was on the same page and when everybody's on the same page, buying into the scheme and doing the right thing, you will end up being successful.''
The Panthers (6-3) face another stiff challenge next Monday night when they host the New England Patriots in a nationally televised game.
They can't wait.
''We're going to come out and hit them in the mouth with a nasty attitude,'' Hardy said.
AP NFL website www.pro32.ap.org
Follow Steve Reed on Twitter: http://twitter.com/SteveReedAP