SAN FRANCISCO -- Some NFL wins are bigger than others.
The Carolina Panthers know that after rallying to beat the San Francisco 49ers 10-9 on Sunday at Candlestick Park for their fifth straight victory.
The Panthers began the current streak with wins over the struggling Vikings, Rams, Buccaneers and Falcons, four teams looking up at .500. This win came against the defending NFC champions, who had won five straight games.
"It was huge," Panthers safety Mike Mitchell said. "I think it really solidifies in our mind who we are. We listened to all the naysayers, saying we hadn't played anybody, blah, blah, blah. Well, we played somebody today, on the road, in their place and beat them. They shouldn't have too much to say. We're relevant, we're here."
Carolina running back DeAngelo Williams scored on a 27-yard touchdown burst late in the first half, and Graham Gano kicked a 53-yard field goal early in the fourth quarter. That's all the scoring Carolina (6-3) needed to beat the 49ers (6-3) in a physical, injury-marred battle.
Carolina held 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick to just 91 yards on 11-for-22 passing with one interception. Panthers quarterback Cam Newton went 16 of 32 for 169 yards and an interception.
San Francisco, coming off a bye week, gained just 151 yards to 250 for Carolina.
"We have to execute better, all around," Kaepernick said. "We just have to go out and make plays. They're a good defense, but today was more our lack of execution than what they were doing."
The Panthers' defense made plenty of big plays. Carolina sacked Kaepernick six times and forced two turnovers, including cornerback Drayton Florence's interception to seal the win. Middle linebacker Luke Kuechly had a team-high 11 tackles, one sack and two tackles for loss.
"I think we've been doing that all year," Kuechly said of the pass-rush pressure. "Front four can rush the passer. That's what they do a great job of doing. It's not one guy, it's all four of those guys. I think everybody contributes in their own way, and when those guys up front do like they do, it makes the coverage a lot easier."
San Francisco tight end Vernon Davis left the game with a concussion late in the first half and did not return. The 49ers lost No. 3 tight end Garrett Celek to a hamstring injury in the first quarter, leaving rookie Vance McDonald as the team's only healthy tight end for the rest of the game.
Wide receiver Anquan Boldin didn't use Davis' injury as an excuse for the 49ers woeful passing attack.
What the 49ers said
"I don't think that was it. We had a good week of practice. I think everybody was ready. We just didn't execute when we got on the field." -- Quarterback Colin Kaepernick, on whether coming off a bye week had anything to do with the 49ers' offensive problems.
What the Panthers said
"That's our style of defense. We say it every week. I know the words. We dominate. We take what we want. We do what we want. That's because we work hard." -- Defensive end Greg Hardy, after the Panthers sacked 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick six times, forced two turnovers and held the 49ers to 151 yards of total offense.
What we learned about the 49ers
1. As talented as their offensive line is, the 49ers still struggle to protect quarterback Colin Kaepernick and move the ball against a physical, aggressive and talented defense like Carolina's. The Panthers came into the game ranked third in total defense (299.9 yards per game) and second in points allowed (13.3). The 49ers scored nine points and gained 151 yards, just 91 through the air. "It's unacceptable," San Francisco wide receiver Anquan Boldin said. "Offensively, we didn't get it done."
2. Linebacker Ahmad Brooks' time flying under the radar could be over. He was a beast Sunday, sacking Panthers QB Cam Newton three times while racking up five tackles, four quarterback hits and three tackles for loss. Fellow linebackers Patrick Willis, NaVorro Bowman and Aldon Smith get most of the accolades, but Brooks leads the 49ers with 6 1/2 sacks.
What we learned about the Panthers
1. The numbers don't lie when it comes to Carolina's defense. The Panthers came into the game ranked third in the NFL in total defense and proceeded to dominate the 49ers' offense. San Francisco quarterback Colin Kaepernick threw for 91 yards, had a passer rating of 42.0 and was sacked six times. "We had a solid game plan," said Panthers defensive end Charles Johnson, who had five tackles and a team-high 1 1/2 sacks. "You have to give credit to the secondary because they held their own. They had some big-time plays, and the linebackers definitely had some big-time plays. Everybody contributed. That's the thing about our defense. Everybody makes plays."
2. Quarterback Cam Newton can't afford another slow start next Monday night against the high-octane New England Patriots. Newton completed just two of his first 11 passes for 13 yards and one interception before heating up during the Panthers' lone touchdown drive, late in the first half. He finished the game 16 of 32 for 169 yards.