Muhsin Muhammad caught three touchdown passes from Jake Delhomme in the second half, and Sauerbrun made four extra points and the go-ahead 34-yard field goal in a 37-27 victory over the hapless 49ers on Sunday.
With 11 players on injured reserve and twice that many hurting on the active roster, the beleaguered NFC champions weren’t exactly shocked when Kasay limped to the bench with a strained calf in the third quarter.
But the rest of the Panthers (2-7) were willing to do anything to end a six-game losing streak—and after Carolina’s next touchdown, Sauerbrun volunteered.
“They thought about going for two, and I said, ‘Come on, man, you know that I can kick extra points. Give me a break,”’ said Sauerbrun, who hadn’t kicked in a real game since college.
The Panthers needed every contribution they could get. Delhomme was 19-of-34 for 303 yards—123 on six passes to Muhammad—as the Panthers scored 34 points after halftime despite no discernible rushing attack, thanks to injuries to several running backs.
“The injury bug has not only flown over Carolina, but he has made it his home this season,” Muhammad said. “We’ve had to overcome a lot. We’re putting together a team, and we just have to come up with ways to win.”
The Panthers scored 17 points in the final 7:12 after Brandon Lloyd’s 30-yard TD catch gave San Francisco a 27-20 lead early in the fourth quarter. Muhammad found alarmingly big holes in the Niners’ befuddled secondary, which was missing its top four cornerbacks due to injuries.
“We had a pretty heart-to-heart talk at halftime, and our guys responded,” coach John Fox said. “We had some guys step up. I told them that what I saw in the first half wasn’t what I expected, and they responded.”
The entire second half was yet another disaster for the 49ers (1-8), who lost their fourth straight to extend their worst start since 1979.
“We just totally self-destructed in the second half,” coach Dennis Erickson said. “When we had a chance to win it, we didn’t. Whether it’s a penalty or a fumble or an interception, it’s not just one thing. It’s self-destruction in all areas.”
Tim Rattay passed for 284 yards, but it was perhaps his worst game as a starter. He made a key fumble and threw four interceptions—two that immediately were turned into points for the Panthers in the second half.
Cedrick Wilson had five catches for 101 yards for the 49ers, but the interceptions even made Carolina’s weak secondary look good.
“Tim knows and I know that he made some pretty bad decisions, there’s no question about that,” Erickson said. “It was obvious.”
The 49ers held the ball for nearly 23 minutes in the first half, taking a 17-3 lead on two short TD runs by Kevan Barlow. But Carolina scored 17 quick points in the third quarter, taking the lead on Muhammad’s 40-yard TD catch.
Linebacker Mark Fields made consecutive big plays in the third quarter in what he called his best game since returning from cancer treatments. Fields returned a fumble for a score that was called back on replay review—but on the next play, he intercepted Rattay’s short pass and returned it to the 1.
Muhammad caught a 4-yard TD pass with 7:12 left to cap a drive rife with Niners defensive errors, and Rattay fumbled while being sacked moments later.
“Special teams and defense gave us opportunities,” Rattay said. “For whatever reason, we let them hang around, and then I made some turnovers. I’ve got to learn from it. I can’t do that.”
Kasay kicked two early field goals. … Barlow had just 47 yards on 21 carries, also drawing a 15-yard personal foul for throwing the ball at a Carolina player. Erickson berated Barlow on the sideline after the play. “You’ve got to go ask the coaches. I don’t know,” Barlow said when asked why he got just five carries after halftime. … RB Brandon Bennett scored on a 1-yard dive after Fields’ interception. It was Bennett’s first carry with Carolina.