It seemed everything was lining up perfectly for the San Francisco 49ers.
Coming off a bye week after five straight victories, the Niners not only were rested and rolling, but getting reinforcements as well.
Wide receiver Mario Manningham and linebacker Aldon Smith – two potential impact players – were returning to the field, and San Francisco was exuding confidence after scoring more than 30 points in five consecutive games.
But Sunday, all that momentum disappeared in a bruising and not-too-beautiful battle with the Carolina Panthers, who came into Candlestick Park with a four-game winning streak of their own and knocked off the 49ers, 10-9.
The loss drops San Francisco to 6-3 and, most significantly, further behind the Seattle Seahawks in the NFC West. Seattle improved to 9-1 Sunday with a victory over the Atlanta Falcons.
"It's a sinking feeling," said 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh to reporters after the game. "We didn't get the job done as a team. We'll bounce back. We'll come storming back."
Not only did the 49ers run into a brick wall in the Panthers – whose defense was solid – but San Francisco lost tight end Vernon Davis and safety Eric Reid to concussions. Both players had to leave the game and their status for next week in New Orleans vs. the Saints is in doubt. Also leaving the game with injuries Sunday were defensive end Ray McDonald (ankle) and tight end Garret Celek (hamstring).
Though the 49ers played poorly, they still had a final chance for a comeback.
After stopping Carolina at its own 46, the Panthers punted the ball away into the 49ers’ end zone for a touchback with less than a minute left. Niners’ quarterback Colin Kaepernick was sacked on first-and-10 from the 20, and then he was intercepted on the next play, trying to go deep to Manningham.
With just 23 seconds remaining, Carolina QB Cam Newton simply took a knee on the Panthers’ ensuing play, letting the clock run down.
Carolina players had stated during the week that they wanted to make a statement by beating the reigning NFC champions, and they did just that in improving to 6-3.
Though San Francisco took a 9-7 lead at the half, the 49ers had to settle for three Phil Dawson field goals of 52, 43 and 25 yards. The Niners could run the ball, with Frank Gore picking up 82 yards on 16 carries, but the passing game wasn’t crisp. Kaepernick completed just 11-of-22 throws for 91 yards. Plus, he threw an interception, one of two 49ers turnovers on the day (Kendall Hunter fumbled the ball away).
The San Francisco defense held the Panthers to just a 53-yard field goal by Graham Gano in the fourth quarter, but that was enough to top the 49ers.
The 49ers could convert just 2-of-13 third-down plays, averaged just 2.9 yards per play, had just 151 total net yards – and only 46 net passing yards (after subtracting 45 for the yards lost on six sacks of Kaepernick). The average gain per passing play: a horrible 1.6 yards.
The 151 yards on offense was the fewest for the 49ers since a Week 9 game vs. the Minnesota Vikings in 2006.
A team that had been so efficient over the previous five victories looked mostly inept.
The Niners could muster just 10 first downs Sunday. That certainly won't get it done next week in New Orleans, where the Saints rank as the NFL's No. 2 passing team and average 27 points per game, sixth in the league.