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The faces changed, but the refrain remained the same. To a man,
the Carolina Panthers talked about how they had been accorded
insufficient respect by the San Francisco 49ers in the days
leading up to, and during, their game on Sunday. Now Carolina
was responding in kind. After knocking off the Niners 30-24,
many Panthers showed a lack of respect for their hosts--and 3Com
Park's antismoking regulations--by firing up fat victory stogies
in the visitors' dressing room, which, before long, took on the
ambience of a Barbary Coast saloon.

Kerry Collins, Carolina's second-year quarterback out of Penn
State, sat at his locker, bare-chested, a hand-wrapped El Rey
Del Mundo panatela clenched between his teeth. He had yet to
light up. In that respect the cigar differed from the members of
the San Francisco secondary, whom he had torched all afternoon.
Crowding eight defenders near the line of scrimmage to stuff the
run, the Niners had left the Panthers' outside receivers in
single coverage, challenging Collins to beat them with his arm.

He did. After throwing for 327 yards and three touchdowns in a
victory that locked up a playoff berth for Carolina and
completed its '96 sweep of San Francisco, Collins reflected on
the insult-intensive week that was. In a midweek story that
ended up on Carolina's bulletin board, 49ers line coach Bobb
McKittrick characterized his team's 23-7 loss to the Panthers on
Sept. 22 as "an aberration." Of Carolina's most recent win, a
24-0 shutout of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Dec. 1, McKittrick
joked that were it not for the Buccaneers' four turnovers,
Carolina and Tampa Bay might "still be playing." Then the
Charlotte Observer ran a story suggesting that it was the
Panthers' offense that was holding the team back.

"I took it a little personally," Collins said after Sunday's
game. "A lot of people have been talking about our defense, and
they should. We have a great defense. But for me, it was like,
'Hey, what about the offense?' So, we just decided we'd come out
and make a statement."

The statement Carolina made to San Francisco was, Move over:
There's a new kid on the block in the NFC West. In their
two-year history the Panthers have won three of four meetings
against the Niners. Both teams are 10-4 this season, but if they
finish with identical records, Carolina will win the division by
virtue of its sweep of San Francisco.

No one expected the 49ers to go down without a fight, but five
fights in the first half? San Francisco's loss of composure was
astounding to behold. The resulting penalties--a club-record 15
for 121 yards--only hint at the extent to which the 49ers were
out of control. San Francisco was flagged for six personal
fouls. Late in the first half, linebacker Gary Plummer was
ejected for jostling side judge Laird Hayes while disputing a
call on a Niners punt.

Those lapses were all the more stunning in view of the fact that
the 49ers, who do not want for pride, have long considered
intemperate behavior beneath them--the sort of thing you would
expect from those silver-and-black-clad ruffians across the Bay.
In this, their 50th-anniversary season, the Niners adopted the
motto Winning with Class, which is precisely what the Panthers

"I've never seen the 49ers talk so much trash," said Carolina
tight end Wesley Walls, who caught a pair of touchdown passes
against the team for which he played for five seasons. "I've
never seen them commit so many personal fouls. It was amazing to
watch them break down like that." Walls was especially stunned
by the behavior of San Francisco fullback William Floyd, who
according to Walls spat in the direction of the Panthers in
pregame warmups and said, "That's what I think of y'all."

According to Carolina wideout Willie Green, Floyd couldn't even
contain himself when a moment of silence was called in memory of
former NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle, who died last Friday.
"[Floyd] came out practically to the middle of the field,
cursing us, ranting and raving," Green said. "That shows
disrespect. The guys were upset about that. Pete Rozelle, great

Why was Floyd in a frenzy? Perhaps he sensed that once the game
began, he would be a nonfactor. (He gained a scant two yards on
two carries and lost a fumble.) As for Green, he caught seven
passes for a career-high 157 yards and a touchdown. Released by
the Detroit Lions and the Bucs in 1994, Green starred for the
Panthers in '95, only to lose his starting job for a while this
year to Muhsin Muhammad, a second-round draft choice from
Michigan State who has since been sidelined with a hamstring

Unable to sleep the night before Sunday's game, Green rose at 5
a.m. and went for a walk. He thought about a prediction he had
made to reporters earlier in the week: The winner of the
Carolina-San Francisco game would represent the NFC in the Super
Bowl. He reflected on coach Dom Capers's response to his
prognostication. (Capers chided Green and pleaded with reporters
not to use the quote, fretting that the Panthers would become
"the laughingstock" of the league.) He thought about what Capers
told the receivers on Wednesday of that week. ("We're going to
win this game by winning the one-on-one battles on the outside,"
the coach had said.)

Sure enough, the Panthers won those battles--and they did so
from the outset. On Carolina's third play from scrimmage,
Collins and wideout Mark Carrier hooked up for 39 yards. Two
plays later Collins zipped a five-yard TD pass to Walls, who
sensed that his 23-year-old quarterback was turning a corner.
"You had all this trash talking and shoving, and he's in the
huddle telling people, 'Good job,' keeping everybody calm and
cool," said Walls. "He called one play, then looked up and
winked at me, and I thought, This guy is on."

That play called for Walls to run an inside route called a
Y-shake pattern, but he couldn't get open. Not a problem.
Collins lofted a sweet spiral to Green, who had gotten behind
cornerback Tyronne Drakeford. The play went for 50 yards.
Sensing Drakeford's vulnerability, offensive coordinator Joe
Pendry called for Green to run the same pattern on the next
snap. This time Collins threw an alley-oop, and Green, who is
6'4", outleaped the 5'9" Drakeford for a 20-yard touchdown that
put the Panthers up 24-14.

Despite their self-destructive behavior, the 49ers were in
position to win the game with less than five minutes to play. On
first-and-10 from his 32, quarterback Steve Young scrambled 33
yards. But three plays later he deliberately threw a high pass
over Carolina defenders to rookie wideout Terrell Owens, who got
one hand on the ball but could only tip it. Cornerback Eric
Davis, who signed as a free agent with Carolina in the
off-season after six years in San Francisco, made a one-handed
interception. The Panthers ran out the clock.

Where was the incomparable Jerry Rice when the Niners were on
their potential winning drive? He caught 10 passes for 129 yards
and one touchdown, but with the game on the line, Young threw
Rice's way on only two of San Francisco's final eight pass
plays. Perhaps that was why the temperamental star receiver
demanded, and was granted, a private meeting with club president
Carmen Policy after the game.

Over in Carolina's dressing room, Walls was still incredulous
about how much trash talking the Niners had done. "I think they
thought they were going to intimidate us, beat us down and
embarrass us," he said. "It happened the other way around."

The new kids on the block came out smoking.

COLOR PHOTO: V.J. LOVERO Sam Mills and the Panthers hit Young from all angles, sacking the Niners star five times. [Sam Mills tackling a San Francisco 49er]