Charlotte, N.C. -- We wondered how the Carolina Panthers would perform in a close game. By their recent standards, Sunday's game was close.

The Panthers led Atlanta 14-10 late in the third quarter and, after a 55-yard field goal from Graham Gano, 17-10 going into the fourth.

Then Cam Newton ran 8 yards for a touchdown, cornerback Drayton Florence intercepted Matt Ryan and returned the ball 38 yards for a touchdown and Gano kicked a 20-yard field goal. The Panthers won 34-10.

The warm-ups complete, Carolina's schedule becomes compelling. The Panthers play at San Francisco on Sunday, and for the first time since Minnesota on Oct. 13, they'll be underdogs.

They then play a Monday night game at home against New England. Then they play at Miami. And they get New Orleans twice in the season's final four weeks.

Carolina has won four straight, each by double figures. The average margin of victory in those four games is 20.5 points. The Panthers are 5-3 and one game back in the NFC South.

The 49ers, meanwhile, are the 49ers. They've won five straight, each by double figures. The average margin of victory in those five games is 22.6 points. They're 6-2.

Says Carolina coach Ron Rivera: "It really is a great opportunity because this is a very good football team we're going to play. They are the defending NFC champs. They played in the Super Bowl last year. They've got a lot of good football players."

Carolina's four-game winning streak has come against teams with losing records. The fault isn't theirs; you play the teams the league tells you to, and the Panthers have performed beautifully.

"It's a big game," says Panthers receiver Steve Smith. "Beating the Falcons was the biggest game this week and we've done that so now we're going to move on and play San Francisco, and they're the biggest game and absolutely nothing could be bigger."

But will what worked against the Vikings, Rams, Buccaneers and Falcons work against the 49ers? Will Cam Newton be the best young, mobile quarterback on the field, or will San Francisco's Colin Kaepernick, who was Newton's roommate at the NFL scouting combine?

If players are telling the truth, perhaps the 49ers are business as usual. But for Panthers fans, the dynamic is different. They've invested their emotion and perhaps their money through three straight losing seasons. San Francisco and all the possibilities it offers is payback.