Now the nation knows what Carolina fans have feared for weeks:
Something is mighty wrong with the Panthers.
The San Francisco 49ers put a Monday night mashing on Carolina on prime-time TV, winning 34-21 at Ericsson Stadium to seize control of the NFC West Division.
The 49ers, delivering a convincing payback punch for their two defeats to Carolina last season, improved to 4-1. The Panthers fell to 2-3, including an ugly 0-3 at home.
What began as a proud night for Charlotte -- the first ``Monday Night Football'' game in franchise history -- quickly deteriorated into the latest in a series of home games marked by costly turnovers, punchless offense, vulnerable defense and boos.
``The 49ers set the tempo from the start,'' said Panthers coach Dom Capers.
It got so bad in the second half that quarterback Kerry Collins was catching more grief from the crowd than Kevin Greene, the former Panthers linebacker who jumped sides following a bitter contract holdout.
Collins had his second consecutive dud of a performance, throwing three interceptions and losing a fumble. That followed a four-interception, one-fumble showing last week against Kansas City.
Carolina's defense was no better than the offense, giving up a team-record (as in worst) 219 yards rushing. San Francisco running back Garrison Hearst led the way with a career high 141 yards on 28 carries.
``I'm not exactly Woody Hayes -- 3 yards and a cloud of dust,'' said Steve Mariucci, who took over this season as the 49ers' coach with a reputation as a passing-game guru. ``But when you've got to chew the clock and it's working, you stick with it.''
And the Panthers' pass rushers weren't able to get to 49ers quarterback Steve Young, who got surprisingly good protection from his offensive line and the backs they kept in to help pick up blitzes.
Ericsson Stadium has indeed become a House of Pain -- for the Panthers. Their three consecutive defeats in the place where they were 9-0 last year have come by a combined score of 93-45.
The latest loss did far more than drop the Panthers two games behind the 49ers. It further dented their fragile psyche and placed in serious jeopardy the high hopes they had entering this season.
Home-field advantage for the playoffs? Super Bowl?
Not too long ago, it seemed realistic. But now . . .
Thanks to a timely bye next week, Carolina has two weeks to consider what to do about the rest of its season before playing again Oct. 12 at Minnesota.
The 49ers staked their claim to Monday's game on their opening possession, driving 79 yards for a touchdown. They did it with the running of Garrison Hearst, William Floyd and Terry Kirby, and the pinpoint passing of quarterback Steve Young.
The score came on an 8-yard touchdown pass from Young to wide receiver Terrell Owens.
San Francisco upped its lead to 14-0 with another scoring drive that was topped off by a 2-yard run by Young.
Three plays later, Collins was intercepted by safety Merton Hanks and the 49ers were in scoring range again at the Carolina 10. They didn't get it in the end zone that time, settling for a 25-yard field goal by Gary Anderson.
The Panthers responded by driving to the San Francisco 18, but their drive ended there when Collins fumbled a snap from center Frank Garcia and 49ers safety Tim McDonald recovered.
Floyd fumbled the ball back to the Panthers four plays later, and Collins took advantage by driving the offense 45 yards in seven plays for a touchdown. The score came on an 18-yard pass to rookie wideout Rae Carruth and cut the 49ers' lead to 20-7 at halftime.
The 49ers got going again in the second half, building a 27-17 lead with a 3-yard touchdown run by Hearst.
Carolina appeared to have at least a glimmer of a chance at making a comeback when Steve Beuerlein, subbing for a slightly injured Collins, drove the team to a touchdown early in the fourth quarter. He hit Rocket Ismail on an 8-yard scoring pass to cut the 49ers lead to 27-14.
But the San Francisco offense responded in a way that humiliated the Panthers' proud defense. Mostly running the ball up the middle, the 49ers drove 81 yards in 15 plays, eating up nine minutes, 56 seconds to put the finishing touches on their convincing win.
Beuerlein took the Panthers to another touchdown in the final minutes, hitting Mark Carrier on a 20-yard scoring pass with 74 seconds remaining that trimmed the 49ers victory margin.
One of the best moves of the night came from whomever was running the public address system at Ericsson: The song playing as the last fans in the stadium were leaving was ``It's Going To Be A Heartache Tonight.''
For the Panthers and their fans, it most definitely it was.