Cam NewtonComing into Sunday's matchup between the Carolina Panthers and San Francisco at Candlestick Park, the Panthers were the team with the bigger questions and doubts. 

They had a four-game winning streak, but the teams they had beaten had a total of five wins combined between them. 

How would they fare against better competition?  It was a fair question, one that was not asked of the 49ers, who were also coming into the game on a roll, winning five straight games. 

Although their strength of schedule was not that much more difficult at all, they are a proven contender in the NFC, coming off last season's Super Bowl appearance. 

I actually happened to be in San Francisco this past weekend and bought tickets to the game, as it would be my last chance to visit historic Candlestick Park. 

As the game approached, the 49ers faithful at the tailgates were confident to the point of overlooking the Panthers.  They were lining up to get into the stadium, even people showing up to the parking lots without tickets and negotiating with scalpers.  

Vendors were selling T-shirts with pictures bidding farewell to their stadium and its rich history.  One that stuck in my mind had pictures of Joe Montana and Steve Young next to Colin Kaepernick kissing his bicep, in a space designated for quarterbacking legends. 

As if Kaepernick was already at that level, but I have been skeptical about his coronation since he became the darling of the NFL during last year's playoff run and through the offseason. And I was skeptical about this game, which had the makings of an upset.      

The Panthers were an emerging young group that was lacking a signature victory in the Ron Rivera and Cam Newton era. They had the opportunity on Sunday to showcase their underrated defense and talented young quarterback against a more established defense in a game that could prove to have major long-term implications when it comes to playoff positioning. 

And they did just that, grinding their way to a 10-9 road victory, completely shutting down Colin Kaepernick and the San Francisco offense. Here are my five biggest takeaways after yesterday's outcome.   

1. The Carolina defense is not just good, it is great. 

Like top 2 or 3 in the NFL great, dominant on the edges and up the middle. Outstanding in coverage and well-disciplined, the Panthers have an attacking unit that consistently forces turnovers and allows their offense to feel less pressure to put up points. 

They sacked Colin Kaepernick six times and held him to 62 yards of total offense. The Panthers shut out the 49ers in the second half, holding the entire team to under 50 yards as they rallied from a 9-0 deficit. Star linebacker and defensive leader, Luke Kuechly, was all over the field as always, with 11 solo tackles and a sack. 

2. Colin Kaepernick has a lot of work to do as a passer. 

His ugly stat line does not tell the whole story. He could not escape the Carolina pass rush, his passes were off-target and in his last opportunity to drive his team into field goal range to potentially win the game, he inexcusably took a sack when they had no timeouts left and threw an interception that had no chance of being caught by his intended target. 

There will be days like this in any young quarterback's development process, but there have been more than anyone expected this season for Kaepernick. Although he has provided more explosive plays than his predecessor Alex Smith, a 56 percent completion rate and spotty win-loss record against good competition this year is causing some San Francisco fans to wonder where they would be with the departed Smith, who owns a 9-0 record himself in Kansas City.

3. Cam is learning to close out games, and his potential is still limitless. 

Cam Newton has had a completely different career arc as his fellow 2011 draft classmate Colin Kaepernick.  He was drafted by the worst team in the NFL with the first pick, and enjoyed instant success statistically, but his team struggled and his individual achievements were overshadowed by the team's unimpressive record, particularly in games decided by one score or less, in which their record was 2-14 since 2011. 

Kaepernick was a sparingly used backup as a rookie, but the 49ers traded up in the second round for the pistol quarterback from Nevada and had long-term plans for him.  Similar in size and skill-set to Newton, he took over for Alex Smith halfway through his second season and never looked back, winning big games and providing memorable highlights well into the playoffs.  

Kaepernick was hyped incessantly over the offseason as the NFL's next superstar quarterback, to the point of overlooking Cam's greatness. 

But once Cam's defense caught up to the 49ers, evaluators would have a better basis for comparison between the two mobile quarterbacks. And so far this season, in Kaepernick's first as a starter, the growth and maturation that Newton endured in his first two seasons is on full display, as he finally won a close game against a great team by making a few key first downs late. 

He has outperformed Kaepernick in every statistical category and despite continually dealing with dropped balls and limited skill position talent around him, Cam Newton has learned to maintain his composure and is primed to lead the Panthers to the playoffs and beyond.           

4. The 49ers' offense is lost without Vernon Davis. 

He missed a game with injury earlier in the season, and they lost to the Colts at home and only scored 7 points.  The talented tight end is having one of his best seasons, but Kaepernick's reliance on him could make them vulnerable to defenses looking to scheme against the 49ers.  

He left Sunday's game with a concussion and will have to undergo mandatory tests to be cleared for next week's game at New Orleans. 

Davis is a matchup nightmare for any defense and simply cannot be covered by any linebacker and most safeties.  But he is the most explosive weapon in the San Francisco passing game, which is not typical of a tight end. 

That might say more about the lack of talent on the 49ers than Davis himself, but with Michael Crabtree and Mario Manningham making their way back from injuries, perhaps the offense will be able to diversify and open things up for other players besides VD.

5. Steve Smith is still a go-to wide receiver.  

Though he has lost a step over the years, Steve Smith can still be relied upon for a big catch on third down.  Generally on third downs, a quarterback looks for his security blanket in the form of a oversized tight end with soft hands that can make a tough catch over the middle, or a shifty slot receiver who can run a quick hot route after an audible at the line. 

Smith has never fit the mold of an NFL wide receiver.  At five-foot nine, Smith is generally split wide, and lined up against the opposing team's best cover man.  

A fiery veteran leader, Smitty is so intense that he has been in numerous fights with teammates, as well as opponents.  But he is the perfect locker room influence for this young team, a franchise icon who has been to the Super Bowl and knows what it takes to get back. 

He made two clutch catches on the sidelines late in yesterday's victory, knowing exactly where the first down marker was and snatching the passes out of the air with his hands, one of the trademark moves that has defined his career.

He has been with the Panthers throughout their peaks and valleys since 2001, and is thrilled to be part of a contender again.