Panthers have 49ers' number again, 23-7 Carolina stands alone atop NFC West at 3-0


CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Blame it on the post-bye blahs. Blame it on a San Francisco 49ers defense that came into yesterday's game against Carolina ranked No. 1 and made backup quarterback Steve Beuerlein look like Joe Montana.

Blame it on an offense that didn't have a clue how to solve Carolina's defensive puzzle.

Blame it on the moon and the sun and the stars, aligned just right for a bizarre football weekend that saw Arizona State shutting out Nebraska and Carolina crushing the 49ers, 23-7.

The NFC West has a new boss -- at least for a week. Carolina, in only its second NFL season, treated its showdown against the 49ers as if it were the Super Bowl and played that way.

For the first time in their young history, the Panthers took over sole possession of first place in the West at 3-0. The 49ers dropped to 2-1 and lost to the Panthers for the second time in three meetings.

"I think basically I didn't have them prepared as well as I thought I did," 49ers coach George Seifert said. "We looked like we were in another world out there, and I think that Carolina had a lot to do with that."

Carolina rocked the 49ers' world from the moment the game began at Ericsson Stadium, its new home.

Beuerlein, subbing for the injured Kerry Collins, picked apart the 49ers' defense as if it were blindfolded. He connected on five of his first six passes and capped an 80-yard drive by hitting ex-49ers tight end Wesley Walls with a 19-yard touchdown pass over the middle.

Just like that, Carolina had a 7-0 lead. The fun was just beginning. By the time the first half ended, Carolina had built a 17-0 lead and Beuerlein had completed 17 of 20 passes for 215 yards and two touchdowns.

"Kind of surprising, huh?" a sheepish 49ers safety Tim McDonald said. "But we are human. We got caught by a pretty good football team. They attacked us just about every way you can imagine.

"They put three wide receivers in the game and we stayed in our base defense a lot. And he made us pay for it. Usually in the past they've shown a tendency to run in those situations. They came right after us."

Carolina rolled up 251 first-half yards to the 49ers' 66. The Panthers had 15 first downs to San Francisco's three in the first half.

"When we're good, we're as good as they come," 49ers !c linebacker Gary Plummer said of the defense. "Now we know when we're bad we're as bad as they come.

"I really didn't think there was anyone in the NFL who could ball-control us."

Now Plummer knows there is.

Panthers center Curtis Whitley said he thought the 49ers paid a steep price for overconfidence.

"I think they kind of underestimated us," Whitley said. "We're a whole lot better team than we were last year and we split with them last year."

The 49ers swear they didn't underestimate Carolina yesterday.

"They had a great game plan," 49ers linebacker Ken Norton said. "They did their homework. Obviously, we didn't adjust very well."

On offense, the 49ers looked as if their dog ate their homework the past two weeks.

The Panthers devised a few defensive wrinkles -- variations of the nickel defense -- to go with their blitzes. Wide receiver Jerry Rice caught 10 passes for 127 yards, but the rest of the 49ers' offense stumbled and bumbled.

"I'm very concerned," Rice said. "We'll do something good, then we'll do something bad. I think it's really costing us big-time."

Carolina kept opening the door for a San Francisco comeback in the second half. The 49ers kept slamming it shut with mistakes.

The biggest miscue came early in the fourth quarter with the 49ers trailing 20-7 and Carolina facing first down at its 22. That's when McDonald intercepted a Beuerlein pass and returned it 19 yards to the Panthers' 3.

Hold everything. Cornerback Tyronne Drakeford was penalized for holding wide receiver Muhammad Muhsin.

"I thought it was a bad call," Drakeford said.

Later in the quarter, the 49ers drove to Carolina's 9. On first down, Steve Young tried to hit rookie Terrell Owens on a slant. The pass hit safety Brett Maxie in the hands, and he held on for the interception.

Young didn't throw to Rice for a very good reason. Rice was on the sidelines, taking a breather after catching his third long pass of the drive.

"In a situation like that, I wanted to get someone in there fresh," Rice said.

Now Rice and the 49ers have a week to recover before Atlanta comes to San Francisco.

Pub Date: 9/23/96

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