SANTA CLARA, Calif. – For a team that is priding on itself on rebuilding a physical identity, the fourth quarter was a thing of beauty.
Defensively, the Panthers produced a goal line stand with the 49ers looking to reach the end zone for the first time.
Offensively, with the ensuing possession beginning at the 1-yard line, the Panthers ran through the 49ers to salt away the 23-3 victory.
"That's how you play physical football!" Rivera told his team moments after the win in the locker room.
Rivera was particularly excited about that closing drive that churned off the final 8:48 on the clock.
"That's what we're supposed to do," said running back Jonathan Stewart, who had 65 of Carolina's 116 rushing yards. "Whenever you can run the ball when everyone knows you are going to run it – that says a lot about your team. It's a physical group of guys."
On first-and-10 from the 1, Stewart ran behind left tackle Matt Kalil, who worked to the second level to give Stewart room to gain five yards and much-needed breathing room.
The next three plays: Stewart run for 8, Stewart run for 4, Stewart run for 6. A punishing sequence with the 49ers dedicating all their attention to stopping the run.
"We just kept pounding, kept pounding, and ultimately, that's what this game is about," guard Trai Turner said. "We imposed our will."
The Panthers ran the ball seven more times before the two-minute warning. After that, quarterback Cam Newton kneeled three times to run out the clock.
"We finished with the ball, lined up in '22 Victory,' and that's a great feeling. No better feeling in the world," guard Andrew Norwell said. "That's what we wanted. We executed. We finished strong."
The O-line can also be proud of what they accomplished in pass protection, which was a major point of emphasis throughout the offseason after Rivera and Co. saw Newton take too many punishing hits in 2016.
"We want to keep him clean and comfortable back there," Turner said.
Well, Newton wasn't sacked against the 49ers.
"Zero sacks – it's good to start that way," said Kalil, the big free-agent left tackle acquired to help keep Newton upright.
A confidence-building performance to be sure.
"I thought our offensive line did an outstanding job protecting the quarterback and handling things up front when we ran the ball," Rivera said. "It's about building confidence and we talk about Cam getting his confidence back and having the confidence in his guys. That's big."
View photos from Carolina's victory over San Francisco to open the regular season.