Posted: Saturday December 18, 1999 08:39 PM
CHARLOTTE, North Carolina (Ticker) -- The Carolina Panthers stayed in the thick of the NFC wild card race at the expense of one of the conference's newest doormats.
Steve Beuerlein threw three of his four touchdown passes to Muhsin Muhammad as the Panthers (7-7) kept alive their substantial chance at one of three wild card spots with a 41-24 victory over the San Francisco 49ers.
In its first year under former 49ers coach George Siefert, Carolina is one of five NFC teams to have seven wins, one fewer than Detroit, which leads all non-division leaders in the conference.
"I don't know if I've ever been so excited to be .500," said Siefert, who guided the Niners to their last two Super Bowl titles. "That was our goal entering the game."
Beuerlein picked apart one of the league's worst pass defenses, completing 27-of-38 passes for 368 yards. The Panthers totaled 270 yards in the first half, 452 for the game and recorded the second-most points in team history.
Beuerlein also moved to the top of the NFC in passing yards with 3,851 and improved his season TD total to 29, second to the 34 by Kurt Warner of St. Louis. Muhammad grabbed a team-record 11 passes for 126 yards.
"Steve, when he's given opportunities, he's taking advantage of them and done a heckuva job," Siefert said. "Everybody is getting more in sync with each ballgame."
The 49ers (4-10) lost for the ninth time in 10 games. They entered the season as one of the teams of the decade and are exiting it one of the worst in the league.
"Opponents find a way to attack our secondary on the outside edges," coach Steve Mariucci said. "We'll have to address this in the offseason. ... Our needs are numerous. Look for some new starters. We'll get specific after the season."
San Francisco was within 24-17 early in the third quarter, but Beuerlein found Patrick Jeffers from 55 yards for his third TD pass of the game and a 31-17 lead with 8:33 to play in the period.
Jeffers has emerged as a quality complement to Muhammad.
Starting for Rae Carruth, who this week was released by the team after being charged with first-degree murder in the shooting death of his girlfriend, Jeffers had eight grabs for 138 yards.
The Panthers have overcome Carruth's lingering legal problems to win four of their last five games. They finish the regular season in Pittsburgh and home against New Orleans -- teams with a combined 7-20 record.
"Who knows how everyone is dealing with this?" Siefert said of Carruth. "I don't know that anyone specifically wants to talk about it.
"I think at this stage of the development of this club we need to win against the next club. That would be special for us to be above .500. We won't have that opportunity unless we win the next game, and that will be tough in Pittsburgh."
The once-proud 49ers, who won Super Bowl titles with Siefert in 1990 and 1995, gave up at least 40 points for the fifth time this season and reached 10 losses for the first time since 1980.
Asked about what it is like to be out of the playoff picture, future Hall of Fame receiver Jerry Rice said, "I was sitting in my room this morning thinking about that."
With the sixth-worst passing defense in the NFC, the Niners allowed Beuerlein and Muhammad to combine on scores of eight and 14 yards in the first quarter as Carolina built a 17-3 lead.
Jeff Garcia then connected with Rice on a 48-yard strike -- the receiver's 180th in his career -- but the Panthers answered on their ensuing drive as William Floyd capped a 65-yard march with a two-yard run for a 24-10 advantage.
Fred Beasley kept San Francisco in striking distance, sprinting 44 yards for a score in the third quarter, but Buerlein threw beyond a safety blitz to find Jeffers with the decisive TD.
Garcia later added a 17-yard TD pass to running back Charlie Garner. He finished 29-of-46 for 303 yards with an interception.
The Niners totaled 397 yards as Garner, Beasley and Terrell Owens each had over 60 receiving. Beasley led the team in rushing with 44 yards on one carry.
Richie Cunningham played his first game for Carolina since replacing the injured Jon Kasay and kicked field goals of 21 and 43 yards. Cunningham was cut by Dallas on Monday.
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