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SAN FRANCISCO — To match the aerial futility the Forty-Niner Faithful experienced at Candlestick Park on Sunday, you have to go beyond the Jim Harbaugh years, back even before the Mike Singletary years, to an era that pretty much defined bad offense around here.

The 49ers had 46 net passing yards in Sunday's 10-9 loss to the Carolina Panthers. The last time they had fewer was against Indianapolis on Oct. 9, 2005 — in Alex Smith's first NFL start at quarterback.

"Unacceptable," San Francisco wide receiver Anquan Boldin said afterward. "Lack of execution. Offensively, we didn't do what we needed to do to win."

Actually, the 49ers did OK on the ground, rushing for 105 yards and averaging a healthy 4.4 per carry. But ugly things happened almost every time Colin Kaepernick dropped back to pass. Kaepernick threw just one interception, on his final pass of the game. But he didn't complete anything longer than 14 yards and, more damning, Carolina sacked him six times.

The Panthers blitzed frequently and effectively, and even when they didn't, they were able to disrupt Kaepernick's timing.

"Moving the ball around wasn't coming easy for us today," 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh said. " .<TH>.<TH>. And we all put our fingerprints on that. Don't feel good as a coach."

It didn't look like a crime scene early on. The 49ers took the opening kickoff and picked up three first downs on a crisp drive before settling for Phil Dawson's 52-yard field goal. And then the offense went into deep hibernation. The Niners didn't move farther than 17 yards on any of their 12 subsequent drives. Their six second-half possessions yielded four punts, a lost fumble and Drayton Florence's game-sealing interception.

Granted, a lot of it had to do with the Panthers, who came into this game ranked third in the NFL in total defense. Most analysts would say Carolina has one of the best front sevens in the league, and they made life miserable for Kaepernick and his blockers.

"That's our style of defense," Carolina defensive end Greg Hardy said. "We say it every week. I know the words. We dominate. We take what we want."

The timing of this flop was especially stunning. For one thing, it followed the 49ers' bye week, which gave Harbaugh's team an extra week to rest up and study the Panthers. It looked like they spent the week eating Pringles and watching reality TV.

Asked if he was surprised by his offense's tepid return to action, Boldin said: "Yeah, because we had a couple extra days to prepare. So, yeah, it is surprising."

Adding to the mystery, the 49ers' previous five games had produced blowout wins and plenty of offensive fireworks. San Francisco scored 174 points in those victories, and none of the final scores was closer than 12 points. But here's the subtext: Only one of those five opponents, Arizona, had a winning record at the time, or has one now.

The 49ers are 4-0 against sub-.500 teams. They're 2-3 against winning teams, which doesn't sound like the resume of a Super Bowl contender.

The offense's clumsiness masked an outstanding effort by the defense. The Panthers had only 250 total yards of their own. The 49ers sacked Cam Newton four times, and nickel back Tramaine Brock set up San Francisco's third field goal with an interception and 41-yard return in the second quarter.

"Today, I just wish we were able to do a little bit more on defense, maybe score on defense or something," linebacker Patrick Willis said. "I don't like pointing fingers."

Dawson's 43-yard field goal earlier in the second quarter came via a gift from the Panthers.

They forced the 49ers to punt in the waning seconds of the first quarter, and a Carolina player got a hand on Brad Nortman's kick. But Florence allowed the ball to touch him 29 yards downfield, and San Francisco's Eric Reid recovered at the Carolina 41.

For a long while, it looked as though Dawson's three field goals would be enough for a win. The Panthers did virtually nothing on offense until the 6:00 mark of the second quarter, when Newton engineered a drive and DeAngelo Williams finished it off with a 27-yard touchdown run to make the score 9-7.

That's how it stood until early in the fourth quarter, when former 49er Ted Ginn set up the Panthers with a 25-yard punt return, and Graham Gano hit a 53-yard field goal to give Carolina its first lead of the game. The 49ers had minus-6 yards in three possessions after that.

The path doesn't get easier for the Niners. They travel to New Orleans this week to face one of the NFL's best teams. You can bet San Francisco will need more than nine points to beat the Saints.

"We ain't about to say it's a big game," wide receiver Mario Manningham insisted. "Every game is the same. There might be teams a little bit better than other ones, but we're gonna prepare like we've been preparing all week."

Or maybe a little better, they should hope.

You can reach Staff Writer Phil Barber at 521-5263 or phil.barber@pressdemocrat.com.