At this time a year ago, Carolina was planning for next season, as a seven-game losing streak buried the Panthers early.
Sunday night, Carolina got a glimpse of its future as late replacement Donald Hayes caught five passes for 133 yards, including one of Steve Beuerlein's three touchdowns, in a 34-28 victory over the slumping Atlanta Falcons.
The win gave the Panthers (5-6) two in a row for the first time this season and kept them alive for an NFC wild-card berth. They also snapped their three-game skid against Atlanta.
"It feels good to win games. Last year we were playing for nothing," said Carolina running back Tshimanga Biakabutuka. "It's your job to motivate yourself and prove to the coaches you are capable of playing, but to play for something like a place in the playoffs, that's a motivating factor.
"We've got to keep pushing. We have the potential to play with anybody."
The Panthers, coming off the first consecutive 30-point games in the four years of the franchise, will get that chance Sunday when the NFC West-leading St. Louis Rams come to town.
The Panthers were ahead 34-14 midway through the fourth quarter before Atlanta (2-9) staged a comeback behind Chris Chandler, who tied a career-high with four touchdown passes.
His 18-yarder to Terance Mathis with 3 minutes 14 seconds left brought the Falcons, losers of four of their last five, within six points.
And Atlanta got the ball back on Carolina's next play when Biakabutuka fumbled the exchange from Beuerlein at the 20. But Kevin Greene forced a Chandler fumble with a sack two plays later.