CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) -During more than two months of losing, San Francisco coach Mike Nolan succeeded in keeping the 49ers upbeat and loose. It didn't mean a giant weight wasn't lifted when they finally ended their eight-game losing streak last week against Arizona.
``It's huge because it gives guys confidence,'' Nolan said. ``You can inspire guys all you want by talking to them, but it will only last about five minutes. They get inspired on game day when guys around them make plays.''
After the thrilling 37-31 overtime win over the Cardinals, the 49ers (3-8) feel there's no reason why they can't start winning now. And a visit to Carolina to play the downtrodden Panthers (4-7) on Sunday would be a good place to start a winning streak.
``How that game was won, that's the best feeling,'' said running back Frank Gore, who rushed for a season-high 116 yards and two touchdowns. ``I think it lifts everyone and we're going to be excited to play Carolina this Sunday.''
Everybody has been excited to play the Panthers lately. They've lost five straight games with anemic quarterback play, no running game and a mistake-prone defense. Last week's 31-6 loss to New Orleans was the Panthers' sixth by 13 or more points and effectively eliminated them from the playoff race
Bank of America Stadium has become an ugly place. With the Panthers 0-5 at home and riding a seven-game losing streak in Charlotte dating to last season, fan unrest is at a level approaching Carolina's 1-15 season in 2001.
The Panthers were booed throughout the loss to the Saints. Late last week, a local radio station held a fan quarterback tryout across the street from the stadium. Most of the contestants were younger than Carolina's likely starter Sunday, 44-year-old Vinny Testaverde.
``He was one of the greatest guys ever when he came out 45 years ago,'' joked Trent Dilfer, the 49ers' 35-year-old quarterback. ``And he's still one of the most competitive guys of all time.''
He's also the Panthers' best option after David Carr's two-interception performance last week that included a passer rating of 20.1.
Of course, Testaverde was supposed to start against the Saints, too, until his back locked up the previous day. It's part of a tough-to-describe year at QB for coach John Fox, who lost Jake Delhomme to a season-ending elbow injury in Week 3.
``Somewhere between unbelievable and you have to be kidding me,'' Fox said.
With games coming up against Jacksonville, Seattle, Dallas and Tampa Bay, San Francisco appeared to be the last chance for the Panthers to get well. Then, the 49ers went to Arizona and ended their offensive funk.
In their first game with new offensive assistant Ted Tollner helping rookie coordinator Jim Hostler, the 49ers set season highs with 374 yards and 21 first downs.
As good as those numbers were, the 49ers still rank last in the league in nearly every offensive category.
``The more you play, the more comfortable you get, and there's a rhythm with the people around you,'' said Dilfer, set to make his third straight start in place of the injured Alex Smith. ``If you keep getting better each week, it's eventually going to make a difference, and that's what happened in Arizona.''
San Francisco gave up 552 yards to the Cardinals and will again be without injured cornerbacks Marcus Hudson and Shawntae Spencer. But that may not matter against the Panthers, who are averaging 12.3 points per game since Delhomme's injury. DeShaun Foster had minus-5 yards on nine carries against the Saints.
``We just haven't played consistently as a unit,'' fullback Brad Hoover said. ``We're making stupid mistakes and it's different people all the time.''
Carolina's defense, on the field for nearly 40 minutes last week because of the offensive ineptness, eventually wore down as the Saints pulled away in the second half.
``For you to point your finger at the other side of the ball, you'll have three pointing back at you,'' defensive end Mike Rucker said. ``We're not playing lights out.''
The teams, who used to be division rivals before realignment in 2002, haven't played in three years. In the last meeting, the Panthers snapped a six-game losing streak by rallying from a 17-0 deficit for a 37-27 win.
It was the start of a 6-2 stretch to end the 2004 season, which helped spur the Panthers' run to the NFC championship game the following season.
But Delhomme was the quarterback then. The Panthers will be relying on a 44-year-old guy Sunday against a team that's hungry for more after finally tasting victory in Arizona on Tully Banta-Cain's fumble recovery in the end zone in OT.
``The way we did it was probably even better because we had to hang in there and go through some adversity,'' Nolan said. ``To win the ballgame was a real key as far as us getting things turned around and starting a new kind of winning streak.''

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