CHARLOTTE – If you love defense, you loved the Panthers' 10-9 victory over the 49ers.
Defensive coordinator Sean McDermott was fond of it as well.
"To me, it seemed like a playoff game. One of those classic games, an NFC matchup of old," McDermott said. "We threw a punch, and they took it. They threw a punch, and we took it. Nobody was willing to budge. They held their ground, and I'm proud of the players for that."
In season full of impressive defensive performances, this one stands out above the rest.
Carolina limited San Francisco to just 151 total yards and 2-for-13 on third downs. The 49ers averaged 2.9 yards per play. The Panthers surrendered the second fewest net passing yards in team history with 46 and equaled the second fewest passing first downs allowed with three.
And in crucial short yardage situations against a highly-touted offensive line, the Panthers delivered.
On the first possession of the game, defensive end Charles Johnson dragged down running back Frank Gore for a 1-yard loss on third-and-2, forcing the 49ers to attempt a 52-yard field goal.
On San Francisco's second possession, rookie linebacker A.J. Klein stopped Gore for a 1-yard loss on third-and-1, forcing a punt.
"It showed the toughness," McDermott said, "both mentally and physically of our defense."
Perhaps the 49ers took notice. When San Francisco faced fourth-and-1 from the Carolina 2-yard line, the 49ers came to line of scrimmage attempting to draw the Panthers offside. Then they took a delay of game penalty and kicked a field goal.
"The guys battled," McDermott said, "and that's a sign of winners."
PLUGGING ALONG: After the heartbreaking Week 2 loss at Buffalo, offensive coordinator Mike Shula was asked if an 0-2 start could have a demoralizing effect on his unit.
Many assumed panic was beginning to set in. Shula was firm in his belief that hard work was going to pay off.
"I know it doesn't make sense right now, because we are 0-2, but guys are really taking ownership," Shula said. "They've worked hard. You want to see the results. You just keep preaching hard work is going to pay off."
The results have come, and the Panthers are riding a five-game winning streak.
"It's a tribute to our players. They've just dug down," Shula said. "They understood that we are a talented team. We have what it takes win. Each guy just has to do their job a little bit better.
"The other thing they've done a nice job of is not panicking, not losing sight of reality. The difference is so little."
Carolina's offense did just enough to earn a one-point victory in San Francisco. Head coach Ron Rivera insisted quarterback Cam Newton's performance, while not his best, was better than the statistics indicated, pointing to tipped balls and dropped passes.
"He didn't play a bad game," Rivera said of Newton, who completed 16-of-32 passes for 169 yards with one interception. "He overthrew a few. He knows that."
Shula echoed that sentiment.
"He's the quarterback, and we all know the quarterback is going to get a lot more credit and a lot more blame during wins and losses. It was a little bit of everybody. In the passing game we were just a little bit off, whether it was throws or catches."
Shula was later asked about the Panthers' lack of explosive plays. Carolina ranks 27th in plays of 20 or more yards (23) and 20th in plays of 40 or more yards (4).
"It's every offense's goal to be explosive and have huge plays each and every week. We look for that," Shula said.
And the Panthers will continue to look for more explosive plays. But in the meantime, Shula has been pleased with the Panthers ability to sustain drives without those long gains.
"If it's not there, if we don't get big plays, we are going to find a way," Shula said. "We've got talented guys. We haven't had a lot of explosive runs but we've had some efficient runs, runs that maybe start with 2- or 3- or 4-yard gains but become bigger gains later in the game. Or they have an effect, and then you can get a play in the passing game."