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."
Trailing 9-7 at halftime, the Panthers had a chance to take the lead late in the third quarter, but Gano missed a 48-yard field attempt wide left. Carolina had marched from its 11 to the 49ers' 30 before the drive stalled. Gano got another chance with 10:05 left to play, and this time he drilled a 53-yard field goal for a 10-9 Panthers' lead.
Former 49ers wide receiver Ted Ginn Jr. set up Gano's field goal with a 24-yard punt return to the 49ers' 44.
The 49ers forced a punt late in the game, but linebacker Colin Jones downed it at the 1 for Carolina. The 49ers got one first down on Kaepernick's 14-yard pass to wide receiver Mario Manningham on third-and 10, but Kuechly sacked him for a nine-yard loss on first down and the 49ers wound up punting.
"Moving the ball wasn't coming easy for us today," 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh said. "We all put our fingerprints on that. Don't feel good as a coach. It's not a good feeling when you don't prevail, especially when you had multiple chances to get it done."
Running back Jonathan Stewart and Newton fumbled on the Panthers' ensuing drive, but Carolina recovered both and ultimately punted again, giving the 49ers one last chance at their 20 with 1:02 left. But defensive end Greg Hardy sacked Kaepernick on first down, and Florence intercepted a pass on second down.
"We've been playing like this all year," Mitchell said of the Panthers' defense. "We've been top 3 (defensively) all season long. This is who we are, this is what we are. ... Defensively, we just did what we do. We came out, we wanted to stop the run. I thought we did a pretty decent job of that. We wanted to hit the quarterback. I thought we did a pretty decent job of that, and I think we had a couple turnovers. That was our formula."
San Francisco tight end Vernon Davis left the game with a concussion late in the first half and did not return. The 49ers had 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.
"It's unacceptable," Boldin said. "We have a number of weapons on offense."
Then with 8:29 left in the third quarter, 49ers rookie safety Eric Reid suffered a concussion -- his second of the season -- on a helmet-to-helmet tackle of Panthers fullback Mike Tolbert, ending his day. Reid stayed down on the turf for a few minutes but was able to walk off the field.
The 49ers built a 9-7 halftime lead on the strength of three Phil Dawson field goals, from 52, 43 and 25 yards. Carolina countered with Williams' 27-yard touchdown run with 1:52 left in the half.
Both defenses had their way for most of the first half. Carolina had 110 net yards, most of those coming on an 80-yard touchdown drive. The 49ers had just 106 net yards.
Dawson gave the 49ers a 3-0 lead with his 52-yard field goal with 10:45 left in the opening quarter as they stalled at Carolina's 34 on their opening drive.
San Francisco added a 43-yard field goal and then made it 9-0 with 6:16 left in the half on Dawson's 25-yarder. The 49ers took over on Carolina's 24 after cornerback Tramain Brock intercepted a Newton overthrow and returned 42 yards. This time, they stalled at the Carolina 2, where they faced fourth-and-1 but settled for another field goal.
The Panthers responded with an eight-play touchdown drive as Newton finally got untracked. After completing just two of his first 12 passes for 13 yards, he went 3-for-3 for 41 yards on the TD drive. On first-and-10 from the San Francisco 27, Williams gashed the 49ers on a counter play, taking a step to his right then cutting left and bolting through a huge hole off left guard. He bounced outside, broke two tackles and scored standing.
"A lot of people have been on us about the teams we've beaten up to this point," Williams said. "We don't care. You line 'em up, we try and knock 'em down."
NOTES: Niners OLB Aldon Smith suited up after missing five games while being treated for substance abuse but played just 11 snaps off the bench. ... Manningham played for the first time since tearing two ligaments in his left knee on Dec. 23 against the Seattle Seahawks. He caught three passes for 30 yards. ... Panthers OLB Chase Blackburn left the game in the second quarter with a foot injury and did not return. ... Niners DT Ray McDonald suffered an ankle injury in the first half and didn't return. ... San Francisco running back and return man LaMichael James was active for the first time since Oct. 6 against the Houston Texans. ... Former 49ers wide receiver Terrell Owens returned to Candlestick Park for the first time since 2003 and was an honorary captain. ... Panthers starting right guard Chris Scott (right knee) was inactive, and Nate Chandler started in his place.