The Panthers beat the 49ers to the division title last season, and it looked like the veteran San Francisco squad would have an uphill struggle when they opened their season with a defeat in which wide receiver Jerry Rice was injured.
Instead, the 49ers have since coasted to 10 victories, with the Panthers' five wins and six losses making them San Francisco's closest pursuers.
Kansas City kept the race tight in AFC West, courtesy of Pete Stoyanovich's 54-yard field goal as time ran out for the Denver Broncos.
The Chiefs won 24-22, spoiling another fourth-quarter-rally by Denver quarterback John Elway, who had moved the Broncos 59 yards in six plays to set up Jason Elam's 34-yard field goal with a minute left. Kansas City's Rich Gannon answered with a 39-yard drive to set up Stoyanovich.
The Green Bay Packers received a jolt from the Colts, as hapless Indianapolis - already eliminated from play-off contention - claimed their first win of the season, against the Super Bowl champions. Cary Blanchard's fourth field goal of the game, a 20-yarder on the stroke of time, gave the Colts a 41-38 victory.
The Minnesota Vikings fell prey to Detroit 38-15 to remain tied with Green Bay at the top of the NFC Central at 8-3, where they were joined by Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who routed New England 27-7.
The weekend saw the first NFL stalemate since 1989 as the Baltimore Ravens and Philadelphia Eagles finished with a 10-10 tie. The Cleveland Browns, who relocated to Baltimore last season, were involved in the last NFL tie, 10-10 with Kansas City eight years ago tomorrow.
The New York Giants beat Arizona 19-10 to move further ahead at the top of the NFC East, one game ahead of Washington and Dallas, whose confrontation ended with the Cowboys winning 17-14.Reuse content