And now what for the Washington Redskins? Their team graph seems to be on the way up following yesterday's 20-17 victory in the season finale against the Carolina Panthers at RFK Stadium, which had almost 14,000 empty seats at kickoff. The Redskins ended their 1995 season with a 6-10 record, a 1,300-yard running back, uncertainty about their future at quarterback, plans to upgrade the defensive line and excitement about a half-dozen players under the age of 25.

The victory means Washington has won two straight games and three of four for the first time in three years. The Redskins finished 4-4 at RFK after losing all eight games at home last year. For the second straight week they were the team with absolutely nothing to play for, yet were superior to a team above them in the standings. The expansion Panthers were going for a .500 record, something no first-year team in any of the major professional sports leagues had ever achieved.

But the Redskins saw their youngest players making big plays, from wide receiver Leslie Shepherd's first-quarter reverse that set up Washington's first touchdown, to wide receiver Michael Westbrook's circus catch in the third quarter, to rookie cornerback Scott Turner's first career interception, to quarterback Gus Frerotte's handful of big throws. And there also was a rapidly improving veteran defense that shut down the Panthers, holding them to 272 yards.

"This is a small glimpse of what we could do, the potential we do have," Pro Bowl linebacker Ken Harvey said. "It was good to see us do it back-to-back. We definitely can hit the ground running {in 1996}. A lot depends on the offseason, how dedicated everybody is. We know what it takes to win. We've seen a little bit of it, a little bit of what we can do."

Frerotte, who was in the eye of a quarterback storm last week, did all right in his 15th career start: 10 of 24 passing for 185 yards. He hit wide receiver Henry Ellard on a 59-yard pass in the third quarter that started the Redskins on the 93-yard drive that put them ahead for good. And Westbrook bailed out Frerotte with a leaping catch on a ball up the sideline for 32 yards that set up a fourth-quarter field goal by Eddie Murray that put the Redskins ahead 20-10.

The score stayed that way -- as Washington defenders dropped at least a half-dozen passes that should have been easy interceptions -- until the Panthers drove 89 yards for a touchdown with 35 seconds remaining. They tried an onside kick, but Redskins safety Keith Taylor corraled it.

"Everyone has seen that when we're on top of our game, we can run it, we can throw it, we have all the tools to do those things," Frerotte said. "Barring injuries, we just have to go and do that. I think a lot of guys are looking forward to next year, knowing what we have."

Will Frerotte or Heath Shuler be a part of that future? No one even wanted to think about that yesterday.

"I have no clue," Frerotte said. "I just went out to be the quarterback" against Carolina.

Said Shuler, who was in uniform as the third quarterback yesterday but didn't play because of a fractured right pinkie: "That's left up to the main people in the head office, and Norv {Turner, the Redskins' coach}, of course. They have to handle the quarterback situation. I don't know what they're going to do. I just have to worry about what I can control. I can't control that, obviously."

The Redskins knew it would be a tough day against the Panthers' blitzing defense, and with few exceptions, Washington had to be content slugging it out for three- and four-yard gains. Running back Terry Allen didn't break John Riggins's single-season club rushing record, but he scored two touchdowns and finished with 92 yards on 28 carries, good for 1,309 yards and 338 attempts this year, both second-best on those respective all-time club lists.

"I didn't do anything {this season} I didn't think I could do," Allen said.

The Redskins broke a 10-10 halftime tie by driving 93 yards for a touchdown midway through the third quarter. On first down from the Redskins 7, Frerotte dropped into his end zone and threw a strike to Ellard -- the 34-year-old had blown past Carolina's speedy rookie cornerback Tyrone Poole -- to the Carolina 34.

On the next play, the Redskins took advantage of the Panthers' pursuit with a reverse, a play that worked all day. On this one, Westbrook broke for 33 yards to the 1 thanks to an excellent block by tight end Scott Galbraith.

Allen scored his second one-yard touchdown of the day on the next play, giving the Redskins a 17-10 lead with 3:53 left in the third quarter.

After Carolina rookie quarterback Kerry Collins (19 of 43 passing, 201 yards, 2 interceptions) missed wide-open wide receiver Don Beebe on a post pattern, the Redskins got the ball back at their 43. On third and eight from the 45, Westbrook fooled cornerback Rod Smith on a stop-and-go move. Frerotte's pass up the sideline was high, but the 6-foot-3 Westbrook leaped and grabbed it at the Carolina 24. The drive stopped soon after, but Murray's 32-yard field goal early in the fourth quarter gave Washington a 20-10 lead.

"We started the year throwing the football so well," Norv Turner said. "We've got to get back to being a more consistent passing team. The people are in place to do that. You saw Michael Westbrook jump up and take the ball. Henry Ellard made the play. We can be a good passing team."

Now, the Redskins face an offseason where there shouldn't be as much change as there has been during the past two. They have to decide what role there is for running back Reggie Brooks -- inactive again yesterday -- for their handful of free agents along the defensive line. They have to decide how much they will spend to re-sign guard Ray Brown and Ellard, both unrestricted free agents who will have some market value.

Will defensive tackle Tim Johnson, an unrestricted free agent, be back next season? Do they keep the 40-year-old Murray, who was nearly automatic on field goals inside 40 yards, perfect on extra points and very short on kickoffs? And what of injured tackle Jim Lachey and defensive tackle Bobby Wilson?

But that will take care of itself. Yesterday was for dreamers who will remember the two victories over the Dallas Cowboys and a half-dozen losses that, so easily, could have been victories.

"This team just got a small taste of what it could be like," Galbraith said. "We are so close. I'm just hoping everyone can get something they can accept contract-wise so we can keep everybody together. Then we get a few more people. People like {rookie defensive end} Rich Owens are going to get older. We're going to gel. It's going to be dangerous." CAPTION: Terry Allen gets a little hug from Gus Frerotte after Allen's second one-yard touchdown run of the day gave Redskins a 17-10 third-quarter lead. CAPTION: From the 7-yard line, Henry Ellard get behind safety Pat Terrell and catches a bomb from Gus Frerotte, good for 59 yards, which sets up . . . a reverse to Michael Westbrook, which again victimizes Terrell. This goes for 33 yards and takes the ball down to the 1-yard line, where . . . running back Terry Allen lunges through a hole opened by guard Ray Brown, scoring his second touchdown of the day and putting Redskins up for good, 17-10.