Well, this game went a little like I expected, and then a lot like I did not expect. The San Francisco 49ers eventually lost to the Carolina Panthers by a final score of 46-27, but it was a wild one in the fourth quarter.
The 49ers kept this thing close in the first half, thanks largely to Panthers turnovers. Cam Newton threw an interception on his first pass attempt, and the 49ers turned that into three points. After the Panthers took a 7-3 lead on a Carlos Hyde fumble returned for a touchdown and subsequently forced a 49ers punt, Fozzy Whittaker fumbled. The 49ers drove 59 yards, in arguably Blaine Gabbert’s best drive of the day. The Panthers quickly responded with a deep ball to Greg Olsen, and eventually went into the half up 17-10.
The 49ers offense was awful for much of the second half, and the Panthers took a 31-10 lead. It looked like they were really going to blow this thing open, but more turnovers kept the 49ers in it. A fumble resulted in a field goal, and on the ensuing kickoff, Ted Ginn muffed the return at his own 1-yard line. The 49ers punched it in on a Blaine Gabbert run, cutting the lead to 31-20.
The Panthers drove down and scored a field goal midway through the fourth quarter to take a 34-20 lead. The 49ers offense had struggled throughout the second half, but on 2nd and 10 on the next drive, Blaine Gabbert connected with Vance McDonald for what became a huge play. McDonald got past Luke Kuechly and turned on the jets up field. He got a huge block from Quinton Patton and it was a 75-yard touchdown. The lead was suddenly 34-27 with nearly eight minutes left to play.
Unfortunately, the 49ers defense could not get a big enough stop. They held the Panthers to a field goal, and that put Carolina up ten. Blaine Gabbert almost had Vance McDonald deep on the next drive, but McDonald could not come up with it. On the next play, Gabbert tried to force one between two defenders and it was picked off. The Panthers eventually added a touchdown
There was a period where it looked like the 49ers might give up, but credit to them for not throwing in the towel. That being said, there are problems that are not going away. Most notably, Blaine Gabbert is just not a good quarterback. He can make some plays, and he’s better than some quarterbacks in the league, but there is zero consistency. It’s going to be maddeningly frustrating, and I don’t think it will be changing anytime soon. Colin Kaepernick might eventually get a chance, but for the time being, Gabbert is going to remain the starter.
The defense made some plays, but had its own share of problems. NaVorro Bowman looked a little off in his tackling. Jimmie Ward was targeted frequently, particularly when he was covering Kelvin Benjamin. Antoine Bethea was burned bad on the Greg Olsen touchdown. Tramaine Brock was burned twice on Ted Ginn deep catches, one of which was overturned on replay, but it is also worth noting that Cam Newton dropped a pair of absolute dimes against Brock. The pass rush could get almost nothing going, and when you give Newton that much time, eventually he’s gonna burn you. Aaron Lynch will be a welcome return in Week 5, but for the next two weeks, the 49ers need to get something going with their pressure.
Ray-Ray Armstrong left the game with a shoulder injury, and there was no update during the game. Andrew Tiller left with an undisclosed injury. He was on the injury report with an ankle injury, so it is possible he aggravated that. Marcus Martin came on in his place and gave up a sack. Sounds about right. Tiller eventually returned.
The schedule does not get any easier this week. The 49ers return home for a week of practice and then head up to Seattle next week to face the Seahawks. San Francisco has not won in Seattle since 2011. Since then, they’ve lost by scores of 42-13, 29-3, 23-17 (NFC title game), 17-7, and 29-3. A year ago, the 49ers were 14-point underdogs. I imagine they will be double-digit underdogs again. One possible reason it could be less will be how Russell Wilson looks against the Rams in Week 2. Wilson is dealing with an ankle sprain, described as of the high ankle variety. It will be interesting to see how his ankle holds up both this week against the Rams and next week against the 49ers.