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Sundays traditionally have not been party nights in the
Bible-thumping city of Charlotte. But times are changing, as
evidenced by the raucous gathering that took place on Sunday
evening at the Southend Brewery & Smokehouse, only a couple of
miles removed from the Billy Graham Parkway. A crowd that seemed
to include half of Charlotte's population--and more than a dozen
Carolina Panthers--downed fancy-named brewskis and celebrated
the home team's 23-7 drubbing of the San Francisco 49ers earlier
that day. Panthers fans seemed as surprised by the decisive
outcome as the five-time Super Bowl champion Niners did, but
they had better get used to sucking down victory beers. Only 19
games into franchise history, Carolina has emerged as a force in
the NFL, complete with a 3-0 record and a one-game lead over San
Francisco in the NFC West.

Can we please stop referring to the Panthers as an expansion
team? These guys have expanded. Sure, there will be potholes
along the road to glory, perhaps even in Jacksonville this
Sunday when Carolina plays the NFL's other second-year squad,
the Jaguars. But the Panthers, from owner Jerry Richardson to
general manager Bill Polian to coach Dom Capers, are creating a
fervid atmosphere, and it is no coincidence that they are rising
to prominence more quickly than any start-from-scratch team in
pro football history. "You look at the people here, and there
are guys who've played in the playoffs, in Super Bowls and in
Pro Bowls," says Pro Bowl pass rusher Kevin Greene, who joined
the Panthers after helping the Pittsburgh Steelers win the AFC
championship last season. "These guys are ass-kicking dudes."

Greene, 34, was one of Carolina's two significant off-season
free-agent acquisitions. The other, Pro Bowl cornerback Eric
Davis, was wooed from the 49ers, who missed him Sunday afternoon
the way Saturday Night Live misses Dana Carvey. Greene and Davis
both consider impatience a virtue. Davis, a 5'11" pit bull who
is in his seventh NFL season, is a disciple of former Niners
safety Ronnie Lott. Sitting with his wife, parents and other
family members at a corner table in the brewery, Davis sounded a
lot like his mentor as he assessed the Panthers' progress: "When
I signed in February, this team wasn't ready to win. There were
guys in the locker room saying, 'I think we can contend,' or,
'We might be a playoff team.' But those of us who have won
before wouldn't accept that. We said, 'We have to play the
games, so we might as well shoot for the championship.' That's
the only way I know how to think, and today was a huge step.
Before you can win, you have to expect to win."

Hours earlier, as he stretched in an end zone during pregame
warmups, Davis had felt the rush of expectation, and he barked,
"There's some competition in the division now!" The Niners have
won 12 of the last 14 NFC West titles, but Carolina looks ready
to give San Francisco a serious run. With a mix of veterans such
as 12th-year safety Brett Maxie, whose fourth-quarter
interception near the goal line on Sunday clinched the Panthers'
victory, and young studs such as rookie halfback Tshimanga
Biakabutuka, Carolina has displayed a killer combination of
poise, ebullience and hunger. It beat San Francisco with veteran
Steve Beuerlein (22 of 31, 290 yards) filling in expertly for
injured quarterback Kerry Collins, who was held out with a
sprained left knee. The Panthers outgunned the 49ers in rushing
yards, passing yards and first downs. And here's a truly scary
stat: Since losing the first five games in its history, Carolina
has gone 10-4. San Francisco is 9-5 over the same period,
excluding its playoff loss last January to the Green Bay Packers.

For the Niners, Sunday's game brought back unpleasant memories
of that 27-17 spanking by the Packers. In both cases San
Francisco fell behind early, had its offensive timing disrupted
and seemed a step slow on defense. The Panthers did what most
teams can't: They ran right at the 49ers. Such a strategy is
usually futile because San Francisco has the best pair of
defensive tackles in the NFL, Dana Stubblefield and Bryant
Young. But Carolina patiently ground out 117 yards, 69 of them
by Biakabutuka, who squirted into the secondary on several
occasions. The Panthers' attack is hardly daring--"If they gain
three yards, they're jumping up and down," one Niners defender
scoffed during the week preceding the game--but on Sunday,
Carolina often lined up with three receivers, and it moved the
ball consistently against what had been the league's top-rated
defense. "They didn't expect us to move the ball on them,"
Carolina tackle Blake Brockermeyer said. "I don't even think we
expected to move the ball on them. But I'm telling you, we
out-prepared them. Our coaches spent the night here during the
week and looked at everything they've ever done on film."

Welcome to the restless world of Capers, who may be this
decade's answer to Joe Gibbs. While his San Francisco
counterpart, George Seifert, has struggled in games following a
bye week (a 3-5 record, despite owning the highest winning
percentage in NFL history), Capers took warmly to the extra week
of preparation Carolina and San Francisco both had before this
game. Last Friday he popped out of the Panthers' offices in
Ericsson Stadium and asked, "Has anybody walked through here
with a sleeper couch?" Capers, who went to Carolina last year
after three seasons as defensive coordinator in Pittsburgh, has
been spending Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday nights at the
stadium, an arrangement that jibes with the schedule of his
wife, Karen, a flight attendant. The late, late show is a hit in
Carolina: Capers, with his droll, businesslike delivery, is the
Tom Snyder of the NFL. He is also the father of the zone-blitz
schemes now emulated throughout the league and is admired even
by Seifert, who last season cited Capers as his choice for Coach
of the Year. "He didn't wait to figure out what he had," Seifert
said last week. "Instead he took the players he had and molded
them so they could go out and win right away."

The Panthers beat the Niners in San Francisco last year without
scoring an offensive touchdown, but the teams' first meeting at
majestic new Ericsson was a different matter. The 49ers are
hoping to build a new stadium in San Francisco, and Niners
president Carmen Policy reverently compared the Panthers' home
to the Colosseum. And judging from Brockermeyer's pregame
assessment, Panthers fans are about as football-hip as the
ancient Romans. In Sunday's Charlotte Observer, Brockermeyer
gave the fans seven tips, including, "When the Panthers' offense
is on the field, don't do the Wave," and "Boo the officials
every time they call a penalty against the Panthers...even if
they made the right call." The 72,224 at Sunday's game got high
marks from Brockermeyer, and they had plenty to cheer about,
starting with Carolina's nine-play, 80-yard touchdown drive to
start the game. It was the first time in 29 games that the 49ers
had allowed a touchdown on an opponent's opening drive.

Beuerlein, best known for productive stints with the Los Angeles
Raiders in 1989 and the Dallas Cowboys in '91, had a huge game,
completing 15 of his first 16 passes before throwing an end zone
interception to cornerback Marquez Pope. By then the Panthers
led 17-0, and tight end Wesley Walls, an off-season free-agent
acquisition from the New Orleans Saints, had a pair of touchdown
catches--more than he had during his entire five-year stint as a
third-stringer in San Francisco.

The Niners may not have cared all that much about Walls's
departure following the '93 season, but on Sunday the loss of
Davis, who felt he was low-balled in negotiations with San
Francisco management, resonated deeply. While Davis was his
usually pesky self, helping to contain longtime practice nemesis
Jerry Rice and breaking up an end zone pass to J.J. Stokes, his
49ers replacement at left corner, Tyronne Drakeford, had a
miserable day. The low point came on the first play of the
fourth quarter, with the 49ers trailing 20-7. Niners strong
safety Tim McDonald intercepted a Beuerlein pass and ran it back
to the Carolina two, but Drakeford was called for defensive
holding, and the play was wiped out.

San Francisco's offensive counterpart to Drakeford was normally
formidable tackle Harris Barton, who had one of the worst games
of his 10-year career. Barton was called for holding on the
49ers' first play, nullifying a 34-yard completion from
quarterback Steve Young to Rice, and spent the rest of the day
grasping at the breeze generated by Greene, who treated Young
like a crash-test dummy.

Young (24 of 40, 267 yards), sacked four times and hit on
countless others, was limited by a groin injury he had sustained
in the season opener against the Saints and aggravated the
following week against the St. Louis Rams. He used his
scrambling talents to complete his first touchdown pass of the
season, a 44-yard lob to wide-open halfback Derek Loville. But
Young, who says he and the Niners' offensive coaches "spent the
whole off-season preparing for" the Panthers' defense, was
made to look like a novice at times. He completed no passes to
tight end Brent Jones, who didn't even get a ball thrown his way
until 5:24 remained in the third quarter. And Rice, despite 10
catches for 127 yards, had no reception longer than 21 yards.

Rice wasn't even on the field for the Niners' last meaningful
play. With 5:15 remaining and the Panthers still ahead 20-7, San
Francisco had first-and-goal at the nine. Oddly, the Niners went
with an alignment featuring two tight ends and rookie wideout
Terrell Owens, a training-camp phenom who has yet to master the
49ers' intricate offense. Owens was supposed to run his route in
front of Maxie but instead broke off the pattern, and Maxie
intercepted. This week expect a new formation in which Young,
Rice and Jones sprint directly into offensive coordinator Marc
Trestman's office to complain about play-calling.

Meanwhile Hall of Fame coach Bill Walsh, who watched the game
from the press box in his new capacity as administrative
assistant to the coaching staff, remains relegated to a token
role as the world's most renowned hot-dog fetcher. Standing on
the sidelines with Niners vice president Dwight Clark before
Sunday's game, Walsh joked of his role: "I'll be upstairs
masterminding everything: 'Dwight, sauerkraut or chili?'"

Capers has much more substantial responsibilities, like making
sure his players don't get too giddy over their fast start.
Sitting in a chair next to the new sleeper sofa in his office an
hour after the game, Capers was already in worry mode, saying,
"It's much harder to handle success than it is to handle
adversity, and that's our challenge right now."

And who's the team to beat in the NFC West? "Oh, the 49ers,"
Capers said. "No question about it." The couch-dwelling coach
sounded as serious as ever, but you got the feeling he might
believe otherwise.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY PETER READ MILLER Disarming San Francisco's Chris Doleman may have gotten to Carolina quarterback Steve Beuerlein on this about-to-misfire pass play, but the Niners did few other things right. [T of C]

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY PETER READ MILLER Davis, who felt he was low-balled by San Francisco, was up to containing Stokes and other 49ers threats. [Eric Davis and J.J. Stokes]

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY PETER READ MILLER Though Young threw for 267 yards, for the most part the Panthers kept him under wraps. [Carolina Panthers players tackling Steve Young]

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY PETER READ MILLER Brockermeyer gave Carolina fans a crash course before the game and exhorted them during it. [Blake Brockermeyer]