SAN FRANCISCO -- The NFL can be fickle both in perception and in reality.
The San Francisco 49ers could have easily extended their win streak to six games and gone into New Orleans next Sunday with a hard-earned victory on their resume.
Instead, the 49ers -- who lost 10-9 to the visiting Carolina Panthers in a game that had a January feel -- will enter Week 11 facing questions about whether they can beat a good team and have fallen too far behind the Seattle Seahawks in the NFC West hunt. Both are legitimate questions.
But it was so close to not being the case.
The Panthers twice recovered fumbles in their own territory in the final two minutes. Carolina’s only points came on a 27-yard touchdown run by DeAngelo Williams late in the first half and a 53-yard field goal in the fourth quarter by Graham Gano.
Defensively, the 49ers continued to play winning football. However, the San Francisco offense -- which scored at least 31 points in the five-game winning streak leading into this game -- missed tight end Vernon Davis in the second half as he sat out because of a concussion. The 49ers, whose offense mustered three Phil Dawson field goals in the first half, showed no life in the second half with just 45 yards.
The result of the close call, puts the 49ers in a tough spot moving forward.
The loss to the Panthers, who have now won five consecutive games, drops the 49ers to 6-3. San Francisco, fell to 3-2 at home and with just its the second loss at home under Jim Harbaugh after Nov. 1, and is now 2.5 games behind Seattle. The Seahawks improved to 9-1 with a victory at Atlanta on Sunday. The Seahawks, one of the best home teams in the NFL, have four of their final seven games at home.
Thus, winning the NFC West may be difficult for San Francisco.
If the 49ers, who are 2-3 against teams with winning records, do not win the NFC West, the highest playoff seed it could attain is No. 5. And the only possible home game would be as host to the No. 6 seed in the NFC title game. Thus, there is a good chance the final game at Candlestick Park will be in the regular-season finale Dec. 23 against Atlanta.
So Sunday’s loss could have long-lasting effects on the defending NFC champions.
Still, Harbaugh vowed the team will straighten itself out quickly.
“We’ll do what we do, we’ll bounce back,” Harbaugh said. “Regroup.”
The 49ers must do so quickly. They have a big game next Sunday at New Orleans that, like the Carolina game, has major playoff implications.
The 49ers must learn they can’t win if they are not at their best. The past five games were no contest for the 49ers. They ripped every opponent. Their closest margin of victory was 12 points.
In their past two games, at Tennessee and in London against Jacksonville, the 49ers jumped out to 24-0 and 28-0 leads. Sunday's game against Carolina was close throughout even though the 49ers did lead 9-0 late in the second quarter.
That’s the difference between the Seahawks and the 49ers this season. The Seahawks have had several games in which they didn’t play well. But they found ways to win. The 49ers couldn’t do that Sunday.
Most of the 49ers’ woes were on offense, especially after Davis left. San Francisco quarterback Colin Kaepernick was under duress all game and had few answers. He was sacked a season-high six times.
According to ESPN Stats & Information, Kaepernick was 0-for-6 on throws deeper than 10 yards downfield Sunday. It was the first time in 19 NFL starts that he failed to complete a deep pass. Kaepernick threw for just 91 yards.
The return of wideout Mario Manningham -- he played for the first time this season after suffering a knee injury in December -- did not spark the offense. Manning had three catches for 30 yards, but with Davis out most of the game, the 49ers' offense was out of sync. Mannigham is a complimentary receiver. But Michael Crabtree, who is expected back in early December, is an impact player.
Until then, the 49ers have to find some answers.
“It’s unacceptable,” receiver Anquan Boldin said of the team’s offensive performance Sunday. “Obviously, we didn’t get it done.”
And that’s the current reality for a team that lost to one of the NFL’s hottest teams by one point.