Place residence

First place, chasing big dreams

CHARLOTTE, NC — The vibe was familiarly haunting. Late in the first half of Sunday’s clash against the Panthers, the San Francisco 49ers were, for the third time in three road games, on a potentially perilous path. Despite dominating an inferior team, San Francisco held an insubstantial lead, leaving the Niners vulnerable to another late meltdown.

They had seen this movie before, and a sequel would have been a real horror story. Fifty-five seconds before halftime, cornerback Emmanuel Moseley and the rest of the muscled Niners defense turned the script on its head.

With the Panthers leading 10-3 and facing a 2nd-and-20 from their own 30-yard line, defensive end Charles Omenihu’s bull rush helped collapse the pocket on Baker Mayfield, who made a goes over the head of running back Christian McCaffrey. Moseley came down to intercept him, got up and slid along the right sideline, cut inside at 15 and hauled a pair of Panthers into the end zone for a pick of 41 yards.

That was it for the Panthers, who were heading for a 37-15 spanking while being rocked by boos from their frustrated fans.

The 49ers have their own issues — in particular, a relentless injury spree that will test their depth and resolve — but after a disheveled first month of the 2022 season, their swagger is back.

“Scoring in defense has got to be one of the best feelings in the game,” said Niners cornerback Charvarius (Mooney) Ward, who signs the three-year, $42 million free agent contract he signed. scored last March after four years with the Chiefs look like double-checking discounts. “It kind of gave our whole team a boost. We weren’t where we wanted to be, and it kind of brought us back to life.

After five games, two blown leads, an unexpectedly abrupt quarterback transition and a lot of fan panic, the Niners are finally closer to living their best life. At 3-2, they are alone atop the NFC West, one game ahead of the Rams, Seahawks and Cardinals.

“Really?” asked receiver Brandon Aiyuk, who led a balanced passing offense with 58 yards on three receptions. “This is where we’re meant to be.”

In other words, those horrific losses in Chicago and Denver didn’t doom San Francisco, despite the sadness they generated at the time.

Sunday, against a shocked Panthers (1-4), the Niners finally showed up at someone else’s house and took out the trash. They will now spend a week at the Greenbrier Resort in West Virginia preparing for next Sunday’s road clash against the Atlanta Falcons (2-3) and looking ahead to bigger wins in December, January and possibly. be even February.

As running back Jeff Wilson (17 carries, 120 yards) said when I told him the 49ers were alone in first place in the division: “We’re not worried about it. We’re trying to get to the Super Bowl.

They will have to do it the hard way. As this is the 49ers, the thrill of victory was dampened by a series of regrettable injuries – including a suspected season-ending ACL tear suffered by Moseley, Sunday’s hero, with just 4:12 remaining. Veteran safety Jimmie Ward, making his 2022 debut after being sidelined with a hamstring injury since training camp, broke his hand in the 49ers’ first defensive snap. And star rusher Nick Bosa (groin) and kicker Robbie Gould (left knee contusion) did not survive the match.

Add that to the group already sidelined by pre-existing ailments, including star left tackle Trent Williams and starting defensive tackles Arik Armstead and Javon Kinlaw, and it’s a
plot.

Then again, the Niners have lots and lots of good players – including Ward, who has become a legitimate locking corner, starting safeties Talanoa Hufanga and Tashaun Gipson, and Omenihu, Samson Ebukam and the rest of a deep defensive line from the Niners. 49ers.

Oh, and George Kittle – remember him? The formidable tight end reemerged as an offensive threat on his 29th birthday, catching passes on two of the 49ers’ first three offensive plays and five total for 47 yards — a performance marred only by a fumble midway through the first quarter.

“I didn’t get him a present,” quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo (18 for 30, 253 yards, two touchdowns, no interceptions) said as he and Kittle got dressed in the adjacent lockers. “So I tried to send him as many balls as possible.”

Garoppolo would have been a potential Panthers trade target this offseason had he not undergone shoulder surgery, setting off a bizarre chain of events that led to his unexpected return to the 49ers as a substitute – only to get his job back when Trey Lance suffered a season-ending ankle injury in Week 2.

Watching the other sideline on Sunday, Jimmy G. had to offer a silent prayer of gratitude that he wasn’t part of this mess.

Carolina’s third-year coach Matt Rhule is down to 11-27, and there’s already rampant speculation that he’ll return to the college ranks — possibly before Panthers owner David Tepper. can’t fire him (and conveniently save Tepper some of the $62 million he shelled out to land Rhule in the first place).

If that seemed like the bottom line for the coach when he was ridiculed last December for closing a press conference (after a blowout loss to the Bucs) with a Jay-Z analogy he also shared with his players – earning him the nickname Ja Rhule – well, the trend is even lower.

And no, unlike his hip-hop namesake, Ja Rhule is not
live up to
at this present time.

Conversely, the 49ers, for the first time in three road games, didn’t fall into the trap of living with their overmatched opponents.

Their dominant defense (coordinated by DeMeco Ryans, who unlike Rhule probably
will be
being an NFL head coach in 2023, maybe in this very stadium) made sure of that in the last minute of the first half.

“We don’t want to trust anyone against us, so we can’t let the teams hang around,” explained Mooney Ward. “I’m not saying it’s not a good team, but we believe in ourselves as a team and we believe we can do something special. No one will give it back to us. We have to come in and get the win .

Moseley seized his moment on Sunday. Now it’s in the hands of the Niners who are still standing.

Michael Silver is a columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle. Email: [email protected] Twitter: @MikeSilver