San Francisco • Carolina coach Ron Rivera has heard all the skeptics questioning whether his Panthers were really as good as their record.
They had beaten the Giants, Minnesota, Tampa Bay, St. Louis and Atlanta.
He will let Sunday's 10-9 road win at San Francisco speak for itself. Rivera has more to worry about than justifying the Panthers' impressive unbeaten run right now, even if they have now won five in a row.
This team is determined to sustain something special, and a victory against the NFC champion Niners (6-3) goes a long way in that effort.
"It's huge. It kind of talks about where we're headed and the direction we're going," Rivera said, calling it the marquee win of his three-year tenure. "It was 10-9. It was about as tough a football game as it gets."
So much so that the 49ers lost a pair of star players to concussions tight end Vernon Davis and safety Eric Reid.
San Francisco coach Jim Harbaugh didn't know much about either one yet.
"Just saw them in the locker room and they seemed as good as could be expected," Harbaugh said.
Here are five things to take from Sunday's game:
SAN FRANCISCO INJURIES: First, Davis went down with a concussion late in the first half, then rookie first-round draft pick safety Reid was injured with 8:29 left in the third quarter.
Just when the 49ers got some reinforcements back linebacker Aldon Smith and wideout Mario Manningham more players were hurt.
San Francisco tight end Garrett Celek was lost in the first half to a hamstring injury, while defensive tackle Ray McDonald hurt an ankle.
Whether these players can make it back in time for next Sunday's game at New Orleans is uncertain.
"Hate to see that. It's part of the game, when you play this game it's a possibility," center Jonathan Goodwin said. "You just hope it's not too bad and those guys are able to be all right."
TIGHT NFC WEST RACE: At 6-3, San Francisco's two-year reign as NFC West champions is in jeopardy.
Not only do the 49ers still have to face first-place Seattle at home on Dec. 8, Arizona is right in the chase at 5-4 and San Francisco ends the year in the desert on Dec. 29.
The 49ers understand the stakes and playoff implications.
"We're always going to bounce back, that's the team we have," linebacker NaVorro Bowman said. "We just can't keep giving wins away. They didn't beat us, we gave it to them, and I'm going to leave it at that."
PANTHERS' DROPPED PASSES: On several crisp passes by Cam Newton, his wide receivers had the ball in their grasp only to drop it.
That didn't help Newton's line. Not that he was overly concerned. Leaving Candlestick Park on top meant so much more.
Steve Smith caught six passes among his 11 targets, while Brandon LaFell added four receptions.
Newton wound up 16 for 32 for 169 yards, an interception and four sacks for a 52.7 passer rating.
DeAngelo Williams broke two tackles for a 27-yard touchdown run late in the first half that pulled Carolina within 9-7, then Graham Gano kicked a go-ahead 53-yard field goal with 10:05 remaining that held up for the Panthers.
"With us scoring right before half, it kind of shattered their momentum," Newton said. "It's fun to get these kind of wins, in a hostile environment where you could cut through the tension with a knife at most points of this game."
DEFENSIVE DAY: Two teams that came in scoring 30 or more points in their last five wins were held in check.
And, this time, it was Carolina's swarming, play-making defense that came through with big sacks of Kaepernick with the game on the line.
"We have to execute better, all around," Kaepernick said.
Linebacker Luke Kuechly had 11 tackles two for loss one of six sacks on Kaepernick, and a pass deflection. San Francisco was limited to 151 yards of total offense, with Frank Gore getting 82 of those yards on 16 carries.
"This has to be one of the biggest wins I've ever had," Kuechly said. "Our D-line has been playing great all year. They played physical, they're playing their gaps, they play strong and they penetrate."
MANNINGHAM AND ALDON SMITH: Manningham had three catches for 30 yards with a 14-yard reception in his season debut, nearly 11 months after a serious left knee injury ended his season and sent him to surgery leaving him to watch a three-point Super Bowl loss.
Smith, a 2012 All-Pro and pass-rushing specialist, played about a dozen snaps in his first game since a 27-7 loss to the Colts on Sept. 22.
"I'm a competitor and I want to be on the field, but whatever works," he said. "The season is long so we'll see how it goes."
Everybody knows Smith will still make an impact.
"Oh, it's special to see a dominant player like that back," cornerback Tarell Brown said of Smith. "We welcomed him back. Had limited snaps but I think his snaps will increase a lot more this week."
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