On this day, the Panthers' defense was superior, giving up just 45 yards in the second half and 151 yards for the day. Carolina's linebacker duo of Thomas Davis and Luke Kuechly made more plays than San Francisco's 49ers All-Pro tandem of Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman.
Both quarterbacks struggled, but Cam Newton made a number of key plays on third down to put the game away. And Carolina's defensive line was superior with six sacks and seven QB hits on just 28 drop backs for San Francisco.
Winners of five consecutive games, the Panthers are one of the best teams in the NFL. If you didn't know before this game, now you know.
Here's what else we learned in this one:
1. Rivera is on a serious roll. The Panthers caught Kaepernick with a few well-timed blitzes. Rivera also chose to punt with the ball past midfield on fourth-and-2 with under five minutes left. The Panthers pinned San Francisco at the 1-yard line after a beautiful play by defensive back Colin Jones.
We were especially encouraged to see the Panthers dial up a pass on third-and-8 late in the game instead of running the ball to burn another San Francisco timeout. Newton delivered with a nice throw to Steve Smith for the conversion.
2. The good news for Mario Manningham's return: He led the team in receiving. The bad news: He had 30 yards. After Vernon Davis left with a concussion in the first half, the 49ers could not operate throwing the ball. Kaepernick was under heavy duress and was not accurate. The 49ers have to be worried about their ability to throw the ball against quality defenses.
3. Niners rookie safety Eric Reid also left the game with a concussion.
4. Newton didn't pile up great numbers, but he completed a lot of difficult throws in the second half, especially on third down.
5. This result could be a key one come late December in terms of playoff positioning. The 49ers now drop to the No. 6 seed in the NFC behind Carolina. San Francisco faces the New Orleans Saints next week in another big NFC battle.