CHARLOTTE -- When you're trying to break a streak, sometimes you need luck, and sometimes you need an unlikely hero.
The Carolina Panthers got both Sunday in the same person; with tight end Dante Rosario delivering more early offense than they had known, then bringing the game back in the boat with a key special teams play in the third quarter.
"It was about as big as the ones we gave them," Panthers coach John Fox said of the fumble recovery of a third-quarter punt that enabled the Panthers to take back a game they were coughing up. "Any time you turn the ball over, it's a huge swing."
When you're on a five-game losing streak, that's how it is. Sometimes you have to rely on a fifth-round rookie who had no career receptions, but who might be the team's first hero with a tongue-stud.
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"It feels good," Rosario said. "It feels like you're contributing, you're doing something to help the team. You know, anybody's going to feel that. I'm more happy for this team because we've had a lot of bumps and bruises along the road, but there's no give up on this team. You could really see that today."
That he provided the spark was the surprising part.
To this point, Rosario hadn't shown the Panthers much in games. They drafted him as a developmental project, a tight end/fullback hybrid who was known as much for getting in fights as anything else. He was once suspended a game at Oregon for kicking an opponent in the head during a kickoff, and also gained acclaim for head-butting Cal returner DeSean Jackson along the sideline. Since he's been here, he's been one of the more likely players to be found in the middle of a practice skirmish.
What he hasn't done is produce any stats, other than four special teams tackles.
That's why even he was a little surprised, and more than a little nervous, when quarterback Vinny Testaverde looked his way on a key third-down play in the second quarter, when the Panthers held a 3-0 lead.
"I just ran a little hook pattern right there in the end zone," Rosario said. "Fortunately, the defense sank back. Steve (Smith) was going across the back of the end zone. I knew I was going to be open. I turned around and just kind of waited in the zone, and Vinny delivered.
"I had turned around, I was waiting there. I saw him check off and look back to me, and I thought, 'OK, he's going to throw me the ball.' And when he finally did, I cradled that thing. Dropped down to one knee, because I wanted to make sure it didn't hit the ground."
The one he picked up off the ground was even bigger. The Panthers had gone up 17-0 (their biggest lead of the season), but gave up 14 unanswered points to start the second half. They looked ready to give back more, but returner Michael Lewis fumbled a punt, which Rosario was able to jump on at the 49ers' 11. When DeShaun Foster took it in for a touchdown four plays later, the Niners didn't challenge again.
Through it all, Rosario was all smiles, grinning as he talked about keeping the ball he caught for a touchdown, taking good-natured jabs from teammates Foster and tight end Christian Fauria at nearby lockers.
"I understand coming in as a rookie there are guys that are ahead of me, are older than me," Rosario said. "I've been in a lot on special teams and getting in when I can on offense. You've just got to be patient for things to happen. Hard work and perseverance, and things like that happen."