Close wasn't nearly enough for the Carolina Panthers Sunday.
They came to 3Com Park to beat the San Francisco 49ers and to renew their frantic chase for a playoff berth.
They left with yet another loss -- 27-19.
It was encouraging that they weathered the 49ers' start with a courageous comeback. But, ultimately, that mattered little.
``Losing stinks,'' said nose tackle Greg Kragen.
Losing Sunday dropped the Panthers to 5-6 and left their playoff hopes in desperate condition. They probably can't afford another loss, which is a tall order considering they face Green Bay and Dallas in December.
``If we keep playing the way we are, we aren't going anywhere . . . except home on Christmas,'' said center Frank Garcia.
The 49ers, on the other hand, are starting to look like a Super Bow favorite. With five regular-season games left, they're 10-1 and have clinched the NFC West title they lost to Carolina last season. They also have a two-game lead over Green Bay, Minnesota and Tampa Bay (all 8-3) in the race for home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.
But want to guess what was most satisfying for the 49ers Sunday?
``It feels great to take the NFC West back from the team who took it from us so boldly last season,'' said quarterback Steve Young, who passed for a touchdown and ran for another.
The victory was the 49ers' first at home over Carolina, which upset them 13-7 in 1995 and 30-24 last season.
Despite falling behind 17-0, the Panthers had chances to make it three in a row at 3Com, but their hopes disintegrated because of mistakes and misfortune.
Four plays defined the day. In order, here's how they occurred:
The penalty that wasn't.
After the 49ers drove for a field goal and a 3-0 lead on their first possession, their second drive got a huge boost.
Back judge Keven Mack called pass interference on cornerback Tyrone Poole, who was defending receiver J.J. Stokes.
Television replays showed no contact by Poole, but the call stood and cost Carolina 39 yards, giving the 49ers a first-and-goal at the 6.
Two plays later, Young ran 1 yard for a touchdown.
Panthers coach Dom Capers took an indirect shot at Mack by saying all Poole did was defend Owens the way he'd been coached.
Poole was more blunt, calling it ``a horsecrap call.''
The rookie mistake.
San Francisco's second touchdown came on a 44-yard pass from Young to fullback William Floyd.
Rookie safety Mike Minter said the fault was his alone.
Minter was assigned Floyd one-on-one on the play, but didn't follow Floyd into the left flat. That left Floyd wide open and allowed him to score on a catch-and-run down the sideline.
``I got caught up being too aggressive, thinking it was a run,'' said Minter. ``I was not keying on him as I should have been. I came in (to defend the run) and got sucked up. When Young threw the ball and I saw it was going into the flat, I thought `Oh my goodness, not there.'
``It's a feeling I hate having, and I'll have it until we play again.''
The special teams debacle.
The Panthers fought to within 17-6, but suffered a big setback when their special teams allowed a 101-yard return for a touchdown by Terry Kirby on the opening kickoff of the second half.
It was a stunner for the Panthers, who had allowed two punt returns for touchdowns last week against Denver and had worked all week to fix the problem.
``We got downfield with the kind of effort you want, but we overran the return and we missed some tackles,'' Capers said. ``It's very disturbing.''
The offense came to life after Kirby's return put San Francisco ahead 24-6.
Carolina drove 63 and 53 yards for touchdowns on consecutive possessions. Fred Lane scored the first touchdown on a four-yard run -- the first rushing touchdown against San Francisco this season -- and Wesley Walls scored the second on a 5-yard pass from Kerry Collins.
That cut the 49ers' lead to 24-19.
After a Collins interception led to a 49ers field goal, it was 27-19.
But Carolina had a late chance when Renaldo Turnbull returned Poole's blocked field-goal attempt to the San Francisco 40 with 2:11 left. That gave Carolina a chance to tie if it could score a touchdown and two-point conversion.
On their first play from the 40, the Panthers had an ideal chance to get the touchdown. Collins lofted a pass to rookie wide receiver Rae Carruth, who split two defenders and got open.
The pass was perfect, but Carruth couldn't see it when it arrived because the 49ers were in his way. The ball bounced around in his arms and fell to the ground.
``I had a chance to make a big play, but once again I came up short,'' said Carruth, whose fumble set up Minnesota's game-winning touchdown in the Panthers' 21-14 loss last month.
``I saw the ball when it got in the air. When I came out of my (route) break, I was feeling pretty good about it. But then the safety came across and I didn't think the ball was going to make it between the two (defenders). It did, but I couldn't get my eyes on it quick enough to make a play.''
The drive -- and the Panthers' hopes -- ended three plays later when Collins tried another long pass to Rocket Ismail and got intercepted by Merton Hanks with 1:41 remaining.
Even that play came with a ``what if?'' for Carolina: Ismail slipped on the wet field just as the ball was arriving.
``If my feet hadn't slipped out from under me, I would have at least been able to bat the ball away,'' Ismail said. That's the worst that would have happened.''
Perhaps the worst didn't really happen Sunday. Carolina could have been blown out, but wasn't.
Capers tried to put an optimistic spin on the weeks ahead, saying, ``I still believe we can be a winning football team.''
But can the Panthers still be a playoff team?