SAN FRANCISCO - Carolina, the confident upstart, has stepped over mistake-prone San Francisco and shattered the vestige of the 49ers' mystique.
The Panthers became the first second-year expansion club ever to make the playoffs by beating the 49ers 30-24 Sunday, clinching a postseason berth and vaulting into a tie with San Francisco atop the NFC West at 10-4.
Eric Davis, who left the 49ers for Carolina, made the play that clinched it, a one-handed interception of Steve Young's pass with 4:35 remaining to stop a potential game-winning drive. Chad Cota also intercepted Young late in the third quarter.
But more than the four San Francisco turnovers on the day were the devastating number of penalties against the 49ers, flagged 15 times for 121 yards in losses.
"They played like the team with tradition. We came unglued," San Francisco coach George Seifert.
Added San Francisco tight end Brent Jones, "If we're going to lose, let's lose on the field. Let's not lose by being idiots."
The victory kept the 49ers from clinching a 10th NFC West title in 11 years and put the Panthers in control - because they beat San Francisco twice, they can win the division by winning their final two games, at home against Baltimore and Pittsburgh. The 49ers did clinch a wild-card berth, their 13th playoff spot in 14 seasons when Washington lost to Tampa Bay.
Since its inception, Carolina has beaten San Francisco three of the four times the teams have met.
"We have never viewed ourselves as an expansion team. It's a nice feeling to be in the playoffs in our second season," Carolina coach Dom Capers said."It's a big, big step for us and it puts us in a position now where if we can take care of business, we can be in the position we want to be in."
Kerry Collins shredded San Francisco's secondary for 327 yards and three touchdown passes, including two to former 49er Wesley Walls, and John Kasay had three field goals as San Francisco surrendered a season-high in points.
Down 30-17, the 49ers got close on Young's 5-yard touchdown to Jerry Rice with 6:22 remaining. San Francisco converted a fourth-and-8 play when Young, who finished with 393 passing yards, hit a wide-open Jones for 26 yards to the Carolina 5 before the touchdown throw.
The 49ers forced a Carolina punt and got the ball at their own 32 with 5:00 remaining. Young scrambled for 33 yards to the Carolina 35 on the first play. After an incompletion, Tyrone Poole was called for pass interference, giving the 49ers a first down at the 30, but Davis then came up with Carolina's fourth takeaway.
San Francisco was anything but the poised team of the past, losing its composure amid a wave of penalties, including a personal foul on Ken Norton that extended Carolina's final drive and deprived the 49ers of a last chance with the ball.
"That was like a blessing from up above," said Walls. "I was just shocked the whole day. People cursing you - that's not like the 49ers, not like the 49er team I played for. There was so much trash talking at the beginning, I thought I was in a pickup basketball game."
The 49ers had five personal fouls in the first half alone, when Carolina built a 27-17 lead.
Linebacker Gary Plummer was ejected late in the second quarter for arguing heatedly with officials over a call.
"We self-destructed," San Francisco center Jesse Sapolu said. "Some of those penalties were totally stupid. We got too emotional as a team. Unfortunately this is a team sport and if one guy loses his poise it hurts the whole team."
Carolina jumped to a 10-0 lead.
Collins finishing the Panthers' opening series with the first of two 5-yard touchdown passes to Walls.
After a fumble by William Floyd, San Francisco's defense forced a Carolina punt but returner Dexter Carter fumbled at the 49ers' 14 when hit by the Panthers' Andre Royal. An unnecessary roughness call moved the ball to the 7 but the Panthers settled for Kasay's 18-yard field goal.
San Francisco's offense began moving as Young started a 70-yard drive with a 26-yard completion to Owens and finished it with a 1-yard scoring pass to Brent Jones to cut Carolina's advantage to 10-7 early in the second.
But Michael Bates returned the ensuing kickoff 58 yards to the San Francisco 37. Collins accounted for the balance with a 26-yard pass to Willie Green followed by a 5-yarder for the score to Walls, who stretched out to make a diving catch, his second touchown grab of the day. The drive was aided by a defensive holding call against cornerback Tyronne Drakeford.
San Francisco pulled to 17-14 on a spectacular individual effort by Owens for a 46-yard score. After catching Young's pass, Owens slipped Tyrone Poole's tackle at the San Francisco 40 and then faked his way past Pat Terrell with a stop-and-go move at the 20 before high-stepping into the end zone.
Carolina had an answer, though, as Collins hit Willie Green with passes of 50 and 20 yards, the second going for a touchdown.
The teams traded field goals in the last 26 seconds of the first half, with San Francisco keep alive the drive for Kasay's second field goal with a 15-yard facemask penalty against Dedrick Dodge.