3-0 Panthers flatten 49ers, to take over division lead

The message is sent.

Convinced by their coaches they weren't respected, the Carolina Panthers demanded the attention of the NFL and the nation Sunday.

In the third game of their second season, the Panthers pounded the San Francisco 49ers 23-7 to run their record to 3-0 and take sole possession of first place in the NFC West.

They're one of the NFL's five unbeaten teams and the playoffs are emerging as a legitimate expectation.

``There's something special going on here in Carolina,'' said Panthers tight end Wesley Walls, the former 49er who caught two touchdown passes. ``If this didn't get the word out, we'll just keep beating people until everybody figures it out.''

The 49ers, NFC West champions 12 of the past 15 years and five-time Super Bowl winners, couldn't figure out what hit them.

``I'm struggling for words,'' said San Francisco coach George Seifert, ``because I don't know what to say.''

This wasn't a fluke. It was a flogging.

By halftime, the Panthers led 17-0 and outgained the 49ers 251-66 yards.

Led by backup quarterback Steve Beuerlein, substituting for injured Kerry Collins, the Panthers drove 80 yards for a touchdown on their first possession.

San Francisco (2-1) hadn't allowed a team to do that in 29 games.

``We took it right at 'em,'' said Walls. ``That's what happened.''

It happened the way center Curtis Whitley said his new son, Curtis Jr., requested in the delivery room. Curtis Jr. (7 pounds, 12 ounces) was born shortly before 7 a.m., about 4 hours before kickoff.

Said a cigar-carrying Curtis Sr.: ``The last thing he told me before I came over here today was, `Daddy, beat the 49ers and tell the boys to bring the noise.' ''

Ericsson Stadium -- with 72,224 fans in attendance -- was a noisy, crazy, towel-waving place, which pumped up the volume of the Panthers' soaring emotions.

``Our fans were as good today as any fans I've been around,'' said coach Dom Capers. ``It was a tremendous advantage to play at home. They were truly the 12th man today.''

The main man was Beuerlein, who looked brilliant in completing 15 of his first 16 passes. He finished 22-of-31 for 290 yards, two touchdowns and one interception.

A nine-year veteran, Beuerlein picked apart the 49ers with precision passing and decision-making.

``We had a lot of plays that were based off of audibles,'' said Capers. ``He called a lot of the game at the line of scrimmage and did an outstanding job of it.''

Walls was his favorite target, catching six passes for 81 yards and both touchdowns.

``Steve was fantastic,'' Walls said. ``When he came here, he knew what his role was and he didn't shy away from it. He had his opportunity today with Kerry out and played great. I just hope he's not this hot out on the golf course Tuesday.''

Kicker John Kasay gave Carolina another perfect performance, running his field goal streak to 13-of-13 with successful kicks of 28, 35 and 19 yards.

The Panthers' defense was punishing and puzzling.

Among the different alignments Carolina used to confuse 49ers quarterback Steve Young was a set of two defensive linemen, five linebackers and four defensive backs. The idea was to block the inside passing lanes Young likes so much on short- and medium-range throws.

``We wanted to disrupt their rhythm and their timing,'' said defensive coordinator Vic Fangio.

It worked.

Young, still bothered by a two-week-old groin injury, didn't get going until the second half and never could mount a comeback.

San Francisco's touchdown came on what Seifert called ``a sandlot play.'' Young eluded a rush and lofted a 44-yard touchdown pass to running back Derek Loville, who got wide open in the left corner of the end zone.

The 49ers chances of getting back into the game ended when a drive to the Panthers 9 late in the fourth quarter was stopped by Brett Maxie's interception. His return to the Panthers 38 set up Kasay's final field goal.

Capers said the Panthers' challenge now is maintaining their focus. Their next two games are away, against expansion rival Jacksonville next week and Minnesota on Oct. 6. The Jaguars would love to spoil Carolina's unbeaten streak and the Vikings beat Green Bay Sunday. They and the Panthers are the NFC's only unbeaten teams.

``This was a big step for us today, a real big step,'' Walls said. ``But we still can't say we've arrived. We've got 13 more games to go before we reach our goal.''

Considering how far the Panthers have come so fast, Capers' assessment could be chilling for future opponents:

``We aren't close to where we want to be.''

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