SAN FRANCISCO – This was a heavyweight fight.
The Carolina Panthers knew that before they left for San Francisco, and they felt it when the game ended.
"We needed to be in a dogfight to show what kind of team this really is," quarterback Cam Newton said.
This Panthers team defeated the reigning NFC champion 49ers 10-9 at Candlestick Park on Sunday.
This Panthers team has won five consecutive games. And this Panthers team endured to prove just how relevant it is.
"One of the biggest wins I've ever had," linebacker Luke Kuechly said.
This was a brutally physical battle between two of the league's premier defenses.
The 49ers kicked three field goals in the first half. The game's lone touchdown came from running back DeAngelo Williams, who slipped away from two defenders for a 27-yard score to cut the San Francisco lead to 9-7 late in the second quarter.
The second half scoring was limited to kicker Graham Gano, who missed his first field goal attempt of the year in the third quarter from 48 yards out.
Gano bounced back by converting a 53-yard field goal with just over 10 minutes remaining in the game to give the Panthers their first lead.
"I was so angry until the ball left my foot on the 53-yarder," Gano said.
Following Gano's conversion, the 49ers faced an uphill battle against a Carolina defense that was firmly settled in.
The ensuing drive started at San Francisco's 12-yard line. The 49ers went three-and-out.
Later, when the Panthers were forced to punt from the San Francisco 41-yard line, former 49er Colin Jones downed the punt at the 1.
The 49ers gained 11 yards in seven plays before punting once again with 2:35 remaining.
"This one came down to the way our defense played," head coach Ron Rivera said.
Running back Jonathan Stewart carried the ball on the next two plays with San Francisco using its first two timeouts. Newton then found wide receiver Steve Smith for nine yards on third-and-eight. Smith was forced out of bounds and 2:12 remained.
"You could cut through the tension with a knife," Newton said.
It was more than tense.
"It got a little scary," Rivera said.
Stewart fumbled on the following play. Luckily, fullback Mike Tolbert recovered.
Two plays later on third-and-two, Newton never controlled the snap from center Ryan Kalil, and the ball fell to the ground. Luckily, Newton recovered.
"When I didn't feel it I didn't want to panic," Newton said. "My main thing was trying to get the ball and punt it out and let the defense win.
"That's what those guys did."
After the 49ers burned their final timeout, punter Brad Normtan punted the ball through the end zone. Only 1:02 remained.
On first down, defensive tackle Dwan Edwards sacked San Francisco quarterback Colin Kaepernick for a six-yard loss. On the next play, cornerback Drayton Florence clinched the dramatic victory with an interception of a Kaepernick pass intended for wide receiver Mario Manningham, Carolina's second takeaway of the game.
"Stop the run, hit the quarterback and take the ball away," safety Mike Mitchell said. "That's literally our game plan. We stopped the run today, we hit the quarterback and we took the ball away. That's what we do. That's Panthers defense."
The Panthers sacked Kaepernick – who had never been sacked more than four times in his career – six times. They limited the 49ers to 2-for-13 on third-down conversions. Carolina outgained San Francisco 250 yards to 151.
"Hats off to our defense. That's the best defense in the league," tight end Greg Olsen said. "I don't care what anybody says."
And it was Carolina that outlasted San Francisco in a dramatic defensive battle to earn a monumental win.
"It felt like (a heavyweight fight) physically. I am sore and tired," left tackle Jordan Gross said. "But smiling."