SAN FRANCISCO – Wide receiver Mario Manningham returned on Sunday to help pump some life into the 49ers’ last-ranked passing attack.
However, one of the 49ers’ most-important pieces to their passing game exited just before halftime when tight end Vernon Davis sustained a concussion.
Quarterbacks Cam Newton and Colin Kaepernick, the darlings of the 2011 draft, took a back seat to the opposing defenses when the Carolina Panthers and 49ers faced off in a battle of surging NFC playoff hopefuls.
The Panthers remained hot with a hard-fought 10-9 victory on Sunday at Candlestick Park.
Kicker Graham Gano kicked a 53-yard field goal with 10:05 remaining in the fourth quarter to provide the Panthers with their first lead of the game.
The 49ers entered the game with the NFL’s top running game and the least-productive passing game in the league. The 49ers only secured their spot at the bottom of the league in passing.
The 49ers failed to take advantage of some prime scoring chances in the first half. Instead of putting the game out of reach early, the 49ers built a 9-0 lead on Phil Dawson field goals of 52, 43 and 25 yards.
The 49ers stalled on third downs, as they managed to convert just one of eight opportunities (13 percent) in the first half.
Manningham played his first game since sustaining torn ligaments in his left knee on Dec. 23. He supplanted Kyle Williams in the starting lineup and caught 3 passes for 30 yards.
More help will be coming for the 49ers’ receiving corps. Michael Crabtree, who sustained a torn right Achilles in May, began practicing last week and is expected to rejoin the active roster within the next couple of weeks.
The 49ers’ passing game continued to sputter, as Kaepernick had a difficult time getting anything going against one of the league’s top defenses. He completed 11 of 22 passes for 91 yards.
The 49ers had a chance when they took over at their own 20-yard line with 1:02 remaining but after being sacked on first down, Kaepernick's 2nd-down pass was intercepted, sealing a Carolina victory.
Again, most of the 49ers’ offense came from running back Frank Gore, who gained 82 yards on 16 rushing attempts.
Likewise, the Panthers did not get much going on offense. It was until their final drive of the first half that Carolina showed much life.
Running back DeAngelo Williams capped an eight-play, 80-yard touchdown drive with a 27-yard touchdown run, on which 49ers defensive backs Carlos Rogers, Eric Reid and Tarell Brown each had chances to make tackles.
Newton completed 16 of 32 passes for 169 yards and an interception.
Early Panthers miscues: The Panthers had some opportunities in the first quarter for game-changing plays, but they could not take advantage of some gifts from the 49ers.
On the first drive of the game, Panthers cornerback Captain Munnerlyn read Kaepernick and made a move to cut in front of Anquan Boldin. But Munnerlyn dropped the easy interception. The 49ers went on to kick a field goal for a 3-0 lead.
Two series later, the Panthers blocked Andy Lee’s punt. But as the ball bounced down the field Carolina’s Drayton Florence touched it. Rookie Eric Reid recovered, and that turnover led to another Phil Dawson field goal.
The 49ers turned another Panthers turnover into a field goal. Cam Newton threw under pressure from outside linebacker Ahmad Brooks. Cornerback Tramaine Brock made the leaping interception and returned it 42 yards deep into Carolina territory to set up Dawson’s third field goal.
Aldon watch: All-Pro outside linebacker Aldon Smith made his return to action after missing five games with after taking a voluntary leave of absence to enter treatment for substance abuse.
Smith did not play in the first quarter but saw action throughout the game. On his first defensive snap, he entered on a third-and-10 play and got pressure against left guard Travelle Wharton to collapse the pocket on quarterback Cam Newton for an incomplete pass.
Linebacker Dan Skuta opened the game as the 49ers’ starter at outside linebacker. Initially, rookie Corey Lemonier subbed into the game in pass-rush situations.
Outside linebacker Ahmad Brooks tied a career-high with three sacks.
Injury concerns: Davis and rookie safety Eric Reid both left the game after sustaining concussions.
Davis was taken to the locker room just before halftime after his helmet to struck the ground as he fell after Panthers safety Mike Mitchell stripped of the ball on a play that was ruled an incomplete pass.
Reid was injured when he came up and delivered a hit on Panthers 245-pound running back Mike Tolbert in the third quarter.
Both players must pass the NFL’s protocol on concussions to be cleared to play next Sunday against the New Orleans Saints.
Reid sustained a concussion earlier this season against the Seattle Seahawks and returned to action for the following week’s game against the Indianapolis Colts. Davis sustained a concussion late last season against the Seahawks and returned the next week, too.
Also, 49ers defensive lineman Ray McDonald did not play in the second half due to an ankle injury.
Return shuffle: Kyle Williams, who handled the primary return chores through the first half of the season, was benched from those duties on Sunday after a rough game two weeks ago.
Anthony Dixon took over as the deep man on kickoff returns, and second-year player LaMichael James made his debut as a punt returner.
T.O.’s return: Former 49ers wide receiver Terrell Owens served as an honorary captain. Owens was honored in the final season of Candlestick Park due to his memorable last-second touchdown catch from Steve Young in the 1998 playoffs against the Green Bay Packers. The play was ranked as the fourth-greatest 49ers moment at Candlestick Park. The 49ers will move into Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara next season.
Owens, 39, said he has not officially retired. He said he would have welcomed an opportunity to return to the 49ers. Owens has not played in the NFL since 2010.
“Yeah, there’s disappointment there,” Owens said. “But it is what it is. I can’t really be too salty about it. I thought there was an opportunity there, obviously, when Michael Crabtree went down that I could’ve been a viable option there to come in for a workout. But nothing happened.”