Jeff Garcia of San Francisco, the NFL's most improved quarterback, will take the NFC's second highest scoring team into Carolina Sunday.

As a scoring machine, no team can match the St. Louis Rams, of course, but Garcia has the 49ers averaging in excess of 28 points a game.

And of the league's 31 teams, only St. Louis and the AFC's Denver Broncos average more.

For Garcia, whose 19 touchdown passes lead the NFL, a win against the Carolina Panthers would be his third in his last five starts--a record that would be better if his team had a better defense.

This past Sunday, the 49ers offense couldn't be stopped--but neither could their defense stop the Packers, who won 31-28.

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Four-Week Run for Garcia

Few NFL quarterbacks can match Garcia's run in the last month, in which he is 2-2 following San Francisco's 0-3 start, which had Bay Area critics demanding his head.

Garcia began the run against Dallas (41-24) and Arizona (27-20), after which he carried Oakland into overtime, where the 49ers' special teams lost a battle of field goals (31-28). Then he carried Brett Favre into the last minute on Sunday, when a Packer field goal broke a 28-28 tie.

Garcia, who like Joe Montana and Steve Young was a Bill Walsh discovery, went toe to toe all afternoon with Favre, a three-time NFL MVP.

Yet in the end, he couldn't overcome the contributions of the officials and his own defensive players.

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Montana Had It Easier

The 49ers' third capable quarterback of the last 20 years, Garcia is actually doing more with less now than Montana and Young could do as comparably young pros.

And Montana had one great advantage:

He was there when Walsh's West Coast Offense was so new and so different that opponents couldn't fathom what the 49ers were up to.

In those early years--remember?--Montana's receivers were typically so far open that every fan and expert asked the same question: How is this happening?

Montana threw with marvelous accuracy, but he didn't really need it to hit a receiver who, in the novel, defense-defying West Coast design, had separated himself by four or five yards from the nearest cornerback.

Since then, NFL defensive coaches have gone to school on the West Coast Offense. And although they still can't always stop the offensive scheme's many weapons, today's players know how to surround West Coast receivers.