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Panthers trounce 49ers, stake their claim to West title

The new kids took over the block Sunday at 3Com Park.

The Carolina Panthers, playing nothing like a second-year team or a 10-point underdog, knocked the San Francisco 49ers off the pedestal they've stood atop for years and took control of the NFC West.

``All the marbles were on the table,'' said Carolina guard Frank Garcia, ``and we took them.''

The Panthers' 30-24 win clinched a playoff berth and gives them a chance to win the divisional title San Francisco has owned 12 of the past 15 years. To do it, The Panthers need to win the next two weeks over Baltimore and Pittsburgh. Both games are at Ericsson Stadium, where Carolina is 6-0 this season.

``This is great, but we aren't satisfied with where we are,'' said Panthers coach Dom Capers. ``We still have some unfinished business to get to where we want to be.''

But Sunday's win, Carolina's fifth in a row, will be cherished for years as the event that thrust the Panthers (10-4) into NFL primetime. Carolina became the first NFC West team since the Atlanta Falcons in 1991 to sweep a season series from the 49ers.

``I feel like this was the changing of the guard,'' said Panthers linebacker Carlton Bailey.

It's also likely to go down as the day Kerry Collins arrived as a premier NFL quarterback. He had the best game of his two-year NFL career, completing 22-of-37 passes for 327 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions.

Because of Collins' play, the Panthers were able to do what hardly anyone believed possible -- win a shootout against the 49ers (10-4).

``I feel like I turned the corner today,'' Collins said. ``It was great fun out there.''

Two of his touchdown passes went to tight end Wesley Walls, who said ``fun'' only began to describe his emotions.

``I feel unbelievable, remarkable, great,'' said Walls. ``How many adjectives can I use in one sentence? If I could think of 100, I'd use them all.''

How about dramatic?

The Panthers scored a touchdown on their first drive and never trailed, but had to survive a furious San Francisco comeback led by quarterback Steve Young, who passed for 393 yards and rushed for 63 more.

But it was a Young interception that sealed this game.

With Carolina leading 30-24 with under five minutes remaining, a 33-yard scramble by Young helped get the 49ers to the Panthers 30.

It was a nervous time for Carolina.

``It's so hard to contain Young,'' said nose tackle Greg Kragen. ``He frustrates you -- and scares you.''

But he's not perfect. His pass to Terrell Owens was high, and Owens couldn't hold it. The ball bounced to cornerback Eric Davis, who was guarding Owens. Davis bobbled the ball but held on and made the catch -- his fifth interception in the past six games.

``The way I'd been stinking up the field earlier in the game, I needed to do something to help this club,'' said Davis.

The turnover came with 4:35 remaining and the 49ers never got the ball back. The Panthers offense picked up two first downs and was able to run the clock out.

Davis' presence with the Panthers was a double whammy for the 49ers, his former team. The player who replaced him at cornerback for San Francisco, Tyronne Drakeford, got burned constantly by the Carolina wide receivers, especially Willie Green.

Green caught seven passes for 157 yards, including a 20-yarder for a touchdown against Drakeford, who got yanked because played so poorly.

``Today, after I got out of bed, I predicted I'd score a touchdown have have my greatest game,'' said Green.

``Amazing, man, amazing,'' said wide receiver Rocket Ismail, who was listening to Green's comments.

Though San Francisco came in billed as the team seasoned on December success, it was the Panthers who were clearly the more poised team. The 49ers were penalized a team-record 15 times for 121 yards. They lost control of their emotions rather than failing to execute, illustrated by six personal foul penalties.

``We came unglued,'' said 49ers coach George Seifert.

Amazingly, the final exclamation point for Carolina was a penalty against San Francisco. With 68 seconds remaining, 49ers linebacker Ken Norton was penalized 15 yards for a personal foul that came after San Francisco had stopped Anthony Johnson on a third-down run.

That allowed the Panthers to run out the clock and prevented Young from getting one last chance to try to rally the 49ers.

``Maybe we were a little overzealous today, I'm not sure,'' said Young.

The 49ers certainly weren't over-prepared for Carolina's game plan, which called for Collins to throw extensively to his receivers on the outside. The Panthers picked on, and beat, the 49ers cornerbacks most of the day.

It all started when the Panthers drove 73 yards for a touchdown on their first possession. The score came on a 5-yard pass from Collins to Walls.

Carolina moved ahead 10-0 with 2:39 left in the first quarter when John Kasay made an 18-yard field goal. The touchdown was set up by Dexter Carter's fumble on a punt return, which was recovered by Andre Royal on the 49ers 14.

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