CHARLOTTE, N.C. - Steve Young's a definite yes, Kerry Collins a no. Now the big question is whether the best expansion team in NFL history is ready for its next test: the league's top-ranked defense.
Sunday's game (1 p.m., FOX 54) against San Francisco gives the Carolina Panthers a chance to test the momentum they've been generating since they closed their first season by winning seven of 11 games.
The Panthers are 2-0 this season, but those victories have come against Atlanta and New Orleans, who are a combined 0-5. Carolina coach Dom Capers expects a much more difficult test against the 49ers, who have outscored their first two opponents 61-11.
"You look at their first two games," Capers said, "and you get a little discouraged."
Having to play San Francisco without your starting quarterback also doesn't do much to lift your spirits.
Collins, the starter in all nine of Carolina's victories, is still nursing a sprained left knee suffered Sept. 8 against the Saints. Collins will be replaced today by ninth-year pro Steve Beuerlein, but is hopeful of returning for next week's game at Jacksonville.
"If it's not healed to the point where I can take a hit, then why go?" Collins said. "I don't want a one-week or a two-week thing to turn into 10."
Young has no such concerns about a groin pull that forced him out of the 49ers' 34-0 victory over St. Louis two weeks ago. He returned to practice this week and said the groin did not bother him.
"I've had a good 10 days off. That should be plenty," he said. "It feels pretty good."
Young, with the highest career passing rating of any quarterback, finds himself in an unusual spot heading into the third game of the season: still looking for his first touchdown pass of 1996.
"We've had to kind of swallow our egos a bit," he said, "but we're averaging about 30 points a game. We're just doing it differently than we usually do."
And the net result is that the 49ers (2-0) are atop the NFC West standings. That's no surprise for a team that's won 12 of the last 15 division titles.
What is a surprise is San Francisco sharing the division lead with Carolina, a franchise that has existed for a mere 18 games.
"The word `expansion' doesn't even get used any more with them," Young said. "That's just a wasted word on this team."
The 49ers got a taste of Carolina's potential on Nov. 5, 1995, when the visiting Panthers forced five turnovers and knocked off the defending Super Bowl champions 13-7.
Young threw for 336 yards and two touchdowns in the rematch five weeks later in Clemson, a 31-10 victory by San Francisco.
The 49ers defense was imposing that day, and this season has featured more of the same. San Francisco is holding opponents to an average of 168 yards. To put that in perspective, consider that there's only one other defense in the league holding teams to fewer than 235 yards per game, and that's Green Bay's, which is giving up 192.
"If you get behind and have to start throwing it, they'll kill you," Carolina offensive tackle Blake Brockermeyer said. "We've got to play the best game we've ever played."
San Francisco coach George Seifert said he's just as impressed with Carolina's defense, a 3-4 scheme that features an often confusing array of zone blitzes.
"I wish they were in a different division," Seifert said, "because it's a nightmare trying to pick up all of the different stunts and blitzes."
Seifert said he's not looking forward to his first trip to sold-out Ericsson Stadium, the Panthers' new 72,685-seat facility in downtown Charlotte.
"We're going into a very hostile environment," he said. "The whole state is excited about the game."
Many Panthers have talked about how the game might give them a barometer of how far the organization has progressed in a relatively short time.
Unimpressed with such talk was Eric Davis, the All-Pro cornerback who left San Francisco after last season and signed with Carolina as an unrestricted free agent.
"Being able to beat the 49ers would mean nothing right now other than the fact that we kept ourselves in first place, we won our third game in a row and we're moving on. It's still September," Davis said. "You don't know what's going to happen between now and January."
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