CHARLOTTE, N.C. - When the Carolina Panthers signed free agents Eric Davis and Kevin Greene, coach Dom Capers called them difference-makers, the kind of players whose winning pasts would rub off on younger teammates.
So far, so good.
The Panthers (9-4) are in San Francisco today the play the 49ers (10-3) (4 p.m., Fox-54) in a game that will determine first place in the NFC West.
One reason Carolina has made it to such a pivotal contest just 29 games into its existence was the offseason signings of Davis and Greene, two unrestricted free agents who boosted the Panthers' already-strong defense.
Davis has four interceptions in the last five games, and Greene leads the NFC with 12« sacks. But more important to Capers than the numbers is the fact that both came from playoff teams - Greene from Pittsburgh and Davis from San Francisco.
"The later you get into the season, the margin of error becomes smaller and smaller and smaller," Capers said. "And guys like Eric Davis, guys like Kevin Greene, they've been in big games and they understand that. It has to influence your preparation. You have to prepare with
more of a sense of urgency than you normally do. And our preparation over the last month of the season has been very good."
The Panthers head to San Francisco having allowed just 19 points in their last 15 quarters. The only other team in the NFL even remotely close to that is Denver, which has given up 32 points in its last three games.
Carolina's turnaround began Nov. 10 in its firstever night game, after the New York Giants put together long touchdown drives on their opening two possessions.
The Panthers held the visiting Giants to a field goal the rest of the way and rallied for a 27-17 victory. New York's offense was able to produced only two first downs on its final seven possessions.
The following week in St. Louis, the Rams got the only touchdown the Panthers have allowed in the 15quarter span, an 11-yard pass from Tony Banks to Lawrence Phillips in the second quarter. But the Rams were shut out the rest of the game and Carolina scored the final 10 points for a 20-10 victory.
It was on to Houston, where the Panthers limited the Oilers to a pair of field goals in a 31-6 victory. Carolina prevented Houston from cracking the 100yard mark until late in the third quarter.
Back at home last weekend, the Panthers had their best effort yet. They didn't allow Tampa Bay inside the Carolina 35-yard line until the final play of the third quarter, and the Panthers went on to a 24-0 victory, their first shutout in the franchise's 29game history.
Heading to San Francisco, Carolina is looking for a franchise-record fifth consecutive victory, has a league-high 47 sacks and has allowed league-lows of 164 total points and 46 second-half points.
Greene said his role in the Panthers' recent success is difficult to define. He noted that the entire team is playing well, a statement supported by a look at the Panthers' turnover ratio. In their first nine games, the Panthers had 17 turnovers while forcing 16. In the last four contests, Carolina has forced 13 turnovers and given the ball away just four times.
And last year, without Greene, the Panthers finished with the seventh-ranked defense in the league. So far in 1996, they're seventh again.
"I'm not sure that I'm a rah-rah type of guy, that I go around and individually fire up everybody to play in a big game," Greene said. "I think I just let my actions on the field pretty much speak what I have in my mind. As long as I come to play and as long as they see me prepared and watching extra game film and coming in early in the morning and staying late, then they see that. They see that's the way the standard needs to be."
Davis also shrugs his shoulders at all the discussion about late-season mental toughness, lockerroom leadership and the like.
"At the end of the day," he said, "did you win? Did you lose? That's all that really matters."
Carolina Panthers lead the NFL in points allowed with 164, and have allowed only 19 points in the last 15 quarters of play. The Panthers have been particularly stingy in the second half when they have allowed a total of only 46 points. Some other notable Carolina defensive rankings include:
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