The 49ers emerged from Sunday’s loss insisting it didn’t have the same deflating feel as last year’s Week 2 blowout in Pittsburgh, even if the scoreboard suggested otherwise.
San Francisco fell 46-27. Panthers quarterback Cam Newton threw for 353 yards and set a franchise record with four touchdown passes. One of the scores was a 78-yard bomb to wide-open tight end Greg Olsen in the second quarter that gave the Panthers a lead they wouldn’t relinquish.
“How many yards did he throw for?” Olsen asked of Newton. “I feel like he threw for a million.”
The 49ers dealt with similar circumstances in Week 2 last year. They had a short week to prepare for a strong – and well-rested – opponent in the eastern time zone. Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger threw for 369 yards and three touchdowns in the Steelers’ 43-19 win. That game, not San Francisco’s opening-week win against the Vikings, set the tone for the rest of the 49ers’ 2015 season.
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Sunday’s loss was different, players said, because they fought back.
Carolina had a 31-13 lead entering the fourth quarter. But Newton was sacked by inside linebacker Gerald Hodges and fumbled at the Panthers’ 33-yard line. Four plays later, Phil Dawson kicked a 39-yard field goal, one of four Carolina turnovers the 49ers converted into points.
Dawson’s ensuing kickoff was short, bounced and then was mishandled by Panthers returner Ted Ginn Jr.. San Francisco recovered at the 2-yard line, setting up quarterback Blaine Gabbert’s 1-yard touchdown run on the next play.
After a Panthers field goal, Gabbert and the 49ers struck quickly again, this time on a 75-yard catch and run by tight end Vance McDonald, a career high for McDonald and the longest reception ever by a 49ers tight end.
Suddenly, the Panthers’ lead was seven points with 7:51 remaining.
“I felt like we were getting better as the game was going on,” Dawson said. “It looked kind of bleak there earlier in the third (quarter). For us to mount a comeback and keep going – I think that’s a testament to the guys’ conditioning. I think that’s a positive, and this was by no means what Pittsburgh was in Week 2 last year.”
Said linebacker NaVorro Bowman, who led the 49ers with 11 tackles: “We have a good team. You can see the positives. You can see the adverse situations that we came upon, and we stayed locked in. We finished the game, and that’s all that you can ask for.”
After McDonald’s touchdown, however, the Panthers seemed to tap the accelerator and pull away comfortably. They scored another 12 points while the 49ers didn’t get beyond their own 36-yard line. Carolina’s 46 points are the most scored by any team this season.
Gabbert threw two interceptions in San Francisco’s final three drives, finishing 17 for 36 for 234 yards and a 64.9 passer rating.
As he has several times since the start of the preseason, coach Chip Kelly called the quarterback’s performance “up and down.”
“It wasn’t helped by the drops,” Kelly said, “but I thought there were some plays I thought he could have been a little more accurate with the ball. ... I think as a team we were up and down. I’m not going to single the guy out.”
Gabbert connected with his top receiver, Torrey Smith, on a 28-yard touchdown in the second quarter. But he and Smith mostly were out of sync. Only three of 10 passes to Smith connected, and one of Gabbert’s fourth-quarter interceptions came on a throw to Smith, who was facing the opposite way and had no idea the ball was arriving.
Meanwhile, the Panthers’ top receiver, Kelvin Benjamin, caught seven of nine passes thrown his way for 108 yards and two touchdowns. Afterward, Benjamin said the 49ers’ fourth-quarter surge was due to the Panthers “playing lazy and playing like we had the game.”
“We have to understand this is the NFL,” he said. “Everybody is good. Once they scored that touchdown, it woke us up.”
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