CHARLOTTE – Quarterback Matt Moore was in the throes of a bounce-back game, and rookie wide receiver David Gettis was catching on in what looked to be his breakout game.
Then, over a matter of snaps, a critical play didn't bounce Moore's way, and another play threatened to break Gettis' spirit.
"If you haven't been intercepted, you haven't played quarterback. If you haven't dropped a pass, you haven't played wide receiver," head coach John Fox said. "You just have to trust your players, keep going at it and trust their mental toughness."
Moore threw an interception that gave the San Francisco 49ers the lead early in the fourth quarter, then Gettis couldn't hold onto a fourth-down pass in the end zone that would have tied it back up.
The duo, however, got one more chance. They responded, tying the score in the final two minutes before cornerback Richard Marshall picked off a pass to set up a field goal that gave the Carolina Panthers their first victory of the season, 23-20 Sunday at Bank of America Stadium.
"It was fun to watch good things happening to a good group of guys," said kicker John Kasay, whose 37-yard field goal with 39 seconds left won it. "It was a testament to them that they kept battling, kept fighting, even when things didn't go well.
"Instead of being like, 'Oh my gosh, here we go again,' they kept battling."
Moore, who completed 28 of 41 passes for 308 yards, compared the joy in the locker room to that displayed by the San Francisco Giants on Saturday night when they earned their way into the World Series.
Fox compared it to something that came on television on Saturdays past.
"There's an old TV show called 'Wide World of Sports.' Their mantra was, 'The thrill of victory and the agony of defeat,'" Fox said. "Unfortunately, we've experienced too much agony up to this point, and it's nice to see the smiles of a winning team."
Moore, starting for the first time since Week 2, and a pair of rookie receivers in Gettis and Brandon LaFell were the brightest lights in the dramatic victory, but the team's ultimate veteran in Kasay played a crucial role on either side of the white lines.
Kasay boomed a 55-yard field goal, one yard shy of his career long, to give the Panthers a 13-10 edge early in the second half. San Francisco tied it, then took the lead early in the fourth quarter when Moore's lone notable mistake of the day – a screen pass gone bad – turned into a 31-yard touchdown return for 290-pound defensive tackle Ray McDonald.
Carolina nearly knotted it with six minutes left, but Gettis let his potential second touchdown grab of the day bounce off his facemask on fourth-and-9 from the 16.
That's when Kasay made nearly as big an impact as he eventually would make with his clutch kick.
"John Kasay foretold it. He said, 'You're going to make the game-winning touchdown,'" said Gettis, who finished with eight catches for 125 yards. "He gave me a big hug afterwards and told me, 'I told you so.' I really appreciated that."
Carolina's defense, which gave up a touchdown drive to open the game but never yielded a second one, came up with its fourth three-and-out stand of the second half to get the ball back to the offense with 4:30 left.
Moore directed the Panthers downfield with the short passing game before going for the big strike, again to Gettis, a perfect lob from 23 yards out to tie it at 20-20 with 1:53 to play. Gettis also scored on an 18-yard hookup in the first half.
"It was tight," Gettis said of the game-tying TD pass, lofted just over closing cornerback Shawntee Spencer. "He did a great job of putting the ball where it needed to be."
San Francisco tried to answer, relying on backup and former Carolina quarterback David Carr nearly the entire second half after Alex Smith suffered a shoulder injury. Carr, however, couldn't get the ball out far enough for receiver Michael Crabtree, and Marshall picked it off to give the Panthers the ball at their own 43 with 1:08 left.
"It was me and Crabtree, one-on-one," Marshall said. "I know what he likes to do. He likes to run seams a lot, so when he threw the ball, I just turned around and picked it off."
Then, on the Panthers' first snap, Moore flicked one down the right sideline that dropped out of the sky and into the hands of LaFell, who totaled six catches for 91 yards. The 35-yard reception put Carolina in field goal range, and Kasay booted it through with 39 seconds left for the victory.
"I think I've hugged Coach Fox like six times already. It's a big deal," Moore said. "We've known we've had the talent to win, but we haven't put ourselves in situations to win. The way this game went, to win it the way we did, it's huge for everybody."