SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- The broad smile on Kyle Shanahan's face after the 49ers' 51-13 victory over the Panthers on Sunday in Levi's Stadium was genuine. When your team improves to 7-0 after finishing 6-10 and 4-12 in your first two seasons as head coach, you're even more appreciative when success arrives, particularly when it is as complete and as dominant as it was against surging Carolina.
"This was the first game where we felt a team was coming in extremely confident," Shanahan told NFL.com. "The Rams are a great team, but they had lost two in a row when we played them. The Panthers had won four in a row and were feeling kind of like we've been feeling the last few weeks. So we knew it would be a challenge for us. We knew it wasn't going to be easy to make them feel any different. The way our guys came out and played from beginning to end -- the score never mattered. They never let up. They've been that way all year, which is why I say we've got some special guys."
Facing what they regarded as their first credible test, the 49ers played as if they had all the answers beforehand. In the first quarter alone they had 10 first downs and reached the end zone on two of their three possessions. Their 14 points were only three fewer than the season high the Panthers had allowed in an opening HALF this year, and their 27 points at the half were only three shy of the season-high allowed by Carolina for a GAME.
With just under 10 minutes remaining in the second quarter, they were averaging 8.2 yards per play on offense while surrendering just 2.4 yards per snap to the Panthers. It was as thorough a start as a coach could ask, setting the stage for seven sacks and three interceptions on defense, with rookie end Nick Bosa accounting for three sacks and a pick, and the first four-touchdown afternoon for running back Tevin Coleman, who finished with 118 yards from scrimmage.
But as quickly as Shanahan delighted in the organization's first 7-0 start since 1990, he turned the page to the next opponent: the Cardinals on Thursday night. As the son of a longtime NFL coach, he understands that managing success can be as challenging as coping with failure. His first year as offensive coordinator in Atlanta, in 2015, the Falcons started 5-0 but finished 8-8. It's one reason he regularly preaches about the importance of staying humble and hungry, pointing out the scarcity of dynasties has as much to do with an inability to mentally lock in each week as it does with a lack of talent.
"We'll take that," said Shanahan, who is receptive to anything that keeps his players grounded.
Fact is, Irvin did not speak for other Carolina players, who credited the 49ers for outplaying them. The victory may have occurred on Sunday, but it was formulated during the week. Shanahan had such great respect for Panthers middle linebacker Luke Kuechly from their divisional matchups when Shanahan was in Atlanta that he wanted to find a way to use Kuechly's recognition skills and quick first step against him. He also wanted to exploit Carolina's team speed. Hence, run-game coordinator Mike McDaniel and offensive line coach John Benton put together a game plan that used a lot of motion and misdirection to set up good blocking angles for the linemen. It was common for the backs not to be touched until they got to the second level of the defense.
"We wanted to try to confuse them a little bit to slow them down a bit," Shanahan said. "We were also able to hit some pretty good screens in the first half because they had been playing a lot of zone coverages. It kind of got them out of their element. They made a good adjustment at halftime going back to a 3-4 and playing a little tighter coverage. But our defense stayed strong."
The defense, which should be good after stockpiling first-round picks along the line, has carried the team through the first two months and had allowed a total of just 10 points through the previous three games. It was one of just two teams not to allow a rushing touchdown all year before surrendering a 40-yard score to Christian McCaffrey early in the third quarter. McCaffrey finished with 117 yards rushing, but had only 21 in the first half.
The unit was so dominant that it picked off Kyle Allen three times after he had not thrown an interception all year. So dominant that late in the first half, after recording his second sack, Bosa gave a shoulder shrug reminiscent of Michael Jordan's shrug after he dropped in his sixth 3-pointer of the first half in Game 1 of the 1992 NBA Finals. It was as if to say: Everything is working; I don't know what to tell you. Then, two plays later, Bosa added another sack for good measure.
"Nick's one of those guys where, if he gets one, he's going to get a couple," defensive lineman DeForest Buckner said. "It was a big day for him and, honestly, that interception was unreal on the screen -- and then he took it for, what, I don't know, 50 yards?"
"We're really not focusing on how good we are; it's about how good we can be," pass rusher Dee Ford said. "We haven't reached our potential -- we're just going to keep chopping wood and squeeze out every bit of potential that we can. I don't know if we're getting each team's best shot, but I know they're getting ours."
"It's legit," he said.
While appreciative of Rivera's words, Shanahan, being the coach that he is, worries that such praise could soften his club. But any fears are mitigated by the fact that a gauntlet of talented clubs awaits them. They still must play Seattle (6-2) twice, Green Bay (7-1), at Baltimore (5-2), at New Orleans (7-1) and the Rams (5-3), last year's NFC Super Bowl representative, who have won two straight since losing three in a row. The Niners' only remaining opponents with losing records are Arizona (3-4-1) and Atlanta (1-7), which has dropped six in a row.
"We have a lot of work to do," linebacker Kwon Alexander said. "We are trying to be the best of the best, so we have to keep working on how to be the best of the best. That is where we want to be."