SAN FRANCISCO – Panthers players that boarded a plane Friday for a cross-country business trip believed they had the makings of something special, and they felt exactly the same way when they took off Sunday evening bound for Charlotte.
The only difference about the return flight? More people were onboard.
"It's huge. It really solidifies in our mind who we are," safety Mike Mitchell said after Carolina edged the reigning NFC champion San Francisco 49ers 10-9. "We listened to all the naysayers saying that we hadn't played anybody, blah, blah, blah. Well, we played somebody today, on the road, in their place, and beat them.
"They shouldn't have too much to say now. We're relevant. We're here."
It's understandable that some people doubted the Panthers, even though they carried a four-game winning streak to San Francisco with them. The victories were all in emphatic fashion by a combined score 130-48, but they came against opponents that entered Week 10 with a combined record of 6-27.
"The past couple of weeks showed what kind of team we are, but we put up a lot of points. We needed that type of game, a dogfight, a barnburner, to show what kind of team this really is," quarterback Cam Newton said. "We haven't had this type of win."
It would also be understandable if deep down, some of the Panthers doubted themselves. Carolina pushed the Seattle Seahawks to the limit in the season opener, but the Panthers couldn't close the deal. They also couldn't close it out a week later in Buffalo and were on the wrong end of a dominating finish a couple of weeks later in Arizona that dropped them to 1-3.
Sunday was different. After the Panthers took their first lead on a 53-yard field goal off the right leg of Graham Gano with 10:05 to play, the 49ers got the ball three more times. The Panthers couldn't breathe easy until veteran cornerback Drayton Florence intercepted a Colin Kaepernick pass with 23 seconds remaining.
"Thank God. Thank God we finally put one away," tight end Greg Olsen said. "We just didn't make the plays that we're accustomed to making when we had the opportunities, but I guess it's a good sign when you can play poorly on offense and still beat one of the best teams in the league.
"It's probably the signature of our time here together. Hats off to our defense. That's the best defense in the league. I don't care what anybody says."
Following the victory, several teammates echoed Olsen's final words.
"We believe in ourselves," linebacker Thomas Davis said, "so we don't need anybody else to believe in us."
Added defensive end Charles Johnson: "We know what we've got in this group. We don't need a bandwagon."
Be it their intention or not, the Panthers bottled up everyone's lingering doubts Sunday and threw them out to sea into the Pacific Ocean.
And from here on out, just like the Panthers' flight home, it should be a fun ride.