SAN FRANCISCO -- After his Panthers lost three of four to start the season, coach Ron Rivera couldn't have been more proud when his team won two in a row to reach .500 in October for the first time since 2008. But the satisfaction of the 30-15 victory over the Rams was tempered that night when Rivera and his wife went to dinner at Del Frisco's, an upscale steak house in the South Park neighborhood of Charlotte, N.C.
Seated in a private room, they watched the Football Night in America pregame show and waited for highlights of the Panthers. And waited. And waited some more. Rivera estimates that over the next 60 to 90 minutes he saw the Panthers mentioned only once.
"I looked at my wife and I said, 'We're not relevant,'" Rivera recalled. "Then I told the players the next day, 'Nobody talked about your asses because we're not relevant. But you know what? We're going to become relevant.'"
True to his word, the Panthers earned their spot at the grown-ups table Sunday afternoon by beating the defending NFC champion 49ers at their own game. They relied on an efficient run game, solid special teams and a defense that's as stingy as it is physical to prevail 10-9 and push their record to 6-3.
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Afterward, when the outcome was complete and the Panthers had showered away the sweat and grime of a hard day's work, Rivera tweaked his mantra by saying the goal is no longer to become relevant. It's now to remain relevant, which shouldn't be an issue considering they've won five in a row, have scored at least 30 points in four of the wins and held a San Francisco squad (6-3) that had won five straight and scored at least 31 in each to just three field goals.
Irrelevant? Quietly the players have set their sights on the playoffs, although their schedule still features two games against the Saints and one each against the Patriots and Jets. Challenging? Yes. But one they definitely welcome considering they control their own fate.
"We know that now we're going to get everybody's best," said cornerback Drayton Florence, who sealed the outcome with an interception at the San Francisco 42 with 23 seconds to play. "When you win [five] in a row, that opens people's eyes. They see the film. They see how we play. We have the second-ranked rush defense and scoring defense. That's big. We're not under the radar anymore."
Much of the Panthers' turnaround has been attributed to the improved play of QB Cam Newton, whose growth can be measured as much by the plays he doesn't make as those he does. Instead of always seeking to extend a possession or do the spectacular, he's earning respect with something as simple as throwing away the football when there's pressure or a receiver is covered. He did it several times on Sunday, finishing the afternoon 16-of-32 passing for 169 yards with no touchdowns and one interception, as well as 17 yards on seven carries. But the former Heisman winner no longer has to be transcendent for Carolina to have a chance. Why? Because of the defense.
It has proven itself to be one of the league's best, allowing just 13.2 points and 82 yards rushing a game. That's a dramatic difference from a year ago, when it allowed 22.7 points a game and 110.1 yards rushing. The group, which started three rookies on Sunday -- tackle Star Lotulelei, linebacker A.J. Klein and cornerback Melvin White -- has not allowed more than 15 points in its last five games and has surrendered just one first-half touchdown all season.
The unit appeared to be compromised early Sunday, when a muffed punt and an interception gave the 49ers the ball twice in Carolina territory seven minutes apart. But in each instance the Panthers forced San Francisco to settle for a field goal, including once after the 49ers had a first down at the 11.
"Everybody was on the same page," said end Charles Johnson, who had 1.5 of the unit's six sacks. "When everybody is on the same page, buying into the scheme, you're going to end up being successful. It's all about being a team and playing as one."
That was never more apparent than after Newton was intercepted midway through the second quarter. He stood on the sideline with a towel over his head, almost incredulous at what had happened. To that point he was having a mostly miserable afternoon, completing just 2-of-11 passes. But after the defense made a stop on third down to force a San Francisco field goal, Johnson patted Newton on the shoulder pad without stopping on his way to the bench. Newton turned and acknowledged the gesture, as if silently saying, "Thank You" and "I got you" on the next one.
He then went back on the field and completed all three of his passes for 41 yards on his next series, the last a 14-yarder on 3rd-and-3. One play later DeAngelo Williams scored on a 27-yard run to make it 9-7 and change the momentum of the game.
"We've always got each others' backs," Johnson said, "so I'm always trying to pick them up on that side of the ball when things don't go right, and that's what they do for me when I need it. That's a good thing, because if we're not looking out for each other, no one is."
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The game was as much about attrition as execution (or lack of) for the 49ers. They came in wanting to establish their run game and set up their tight ends for play-action passes. By halftime, however, two of their top three tight ends were forced from the game for good -- Vernon Davis with a concussion, and Garrett Celek with a strained hamstring.
Losing Davis was critical because he and wideout Anquan Boldin have been the only reliable threats in the 49ers passing game. The team has attempted 221 passes this year, with 116 going to the pair. They're the only two with more than 14 receptions.
With Davis out, the 49ers had to adjust a gameplan they had spent the week installing. It proved futile against a defense as talented as the Panthers, whose six sacks were double the previous high allowed by San Francisco this season.
"It's a huge difference," center Jonathan Goodwin said of his team not having Davis. "Those guys don't have to worry about Vernon's speed in the passing game. Vernon's a rare tight end that can stretch the field."
Some might have thought Rivera was stretching the truth when he said the Panthers would be relevant this season, but his opinion was not based on emotion. They had showed signs of growth at the end of the 2012 season, winning their last four and five of six overall. And if not for some heartache and color-by-numbers coaching early in the season, they could've extended the streak to start this year.
For instance, with 5:25 to play in the opener, DeAngelo Williams lost a fumble at the Seattle 8, and the Panthers wound up losing 12-7. The next week Carolina led the Bills by three points with 1:42 to play. It had a faced a 4th-and-1 at the Buffalo 21 and opted to kick the field goal instead of going for the yard to run out the clock. While that strategy was sound according to most football handbooks, the move backfired as the Bills went 80 yards in 96 seconds for the game-winning touchdown. It was then that Rivera told himself he would never play conservatively again.
It was the 15th time in his two-plus seasons they had lost by eight points or fewer, and the seventh time by three or fewer points. Something had to change, and it proved to be Rivera's way of thinking.
"My first two years I did everything by The Book," he said late Sunday afternoon. "Punt the ball, kick field goals, stuff like that -- bypassing opportunities to go for it on fourth down. I looked at certain situations, certain circumstances, and the one that got me was Buffalo. One of the things we could've done is go for it on fourth down, and we didn't. I've thought about that ever since, and part of my maturing as a coach is understanding certain situations and circumstances and going with it."
As the coach matures, so does his team. Which is why it now has a seat at the grown-ups table.