It didn't matter that the Carolina Panthers' 9-6 victory over the Atlanta Falcons on Sunday at the Georgia Dome was neither cosmetic nor convincing.
It didn't matter that Carolina scored the fewest points in franchise history.
What mattered was the sense of relief and restored self-assurance that filled the Panthers locker room after John Kasay's 39-yard field goal as time ran out pulled out a game Carolina had looked doomed to lose.
Can you imagine what state the defending NFC West champions would be in today if they had fallen to 0-2 in the regular season after going 0-4 in the preseason?
Their season might have been doomed.
It has been saved, at least temporarily.
``When the season's over, or even a few weeks from now, nobody will be saying, `They just barely squeaked by,' '' quarterback Steve Beuerlein said. ``The bottom line is we got the win.''
Coach Dom Capers beamed when team president Mark Richardson handed him a victory cigar.
``I'm glad you didn't have to let these age any longer,'' Capers told Richardson.
If you're Capers, there was a lot to like about the way the Panthers beat the Falcons.
Not the six sacks recorded by the Atlanta defense or the dangerous fumble by Panthers punt returner Tyrone Poole or the three quarters of scoreless, mostly hapless play by the Carolina offense.
What made it a special win for the coach was the Panthers survived all that, plus injuries that slowed linebackers Sam Mills and Lamar Lathon, and played their best when it counted most, the fourth quarter.
Beuerlein and the Panthers passing game emerged suddenly in the fourth quarter, resulting in three field-goal drives that provided the points needed to win.
After sluggishly completing 10 of 20 passes for 112 yards in the first three periods, Beuerlein was 11 of 15 for 156 yards in the fourth quarter. His go-to guys were tight end Wesley Walls and wide receiver Muhsin Muhammad.
Beurlein's big fourth quarter began with a 52-yard completion to Walls and ended with a 5-yard pass to Muhammad he wished he'd never made.
The score was tied 6-6 and the Panthers had driven to the Falcons 26-yard line. With 18 seconds remaining and no timeouts left, they were in position for a Kasay field goal.
``I thought we were going to kick it right there,'' Beuerlein said.
Instead, Capers decided to run one more play. He wanted to get the ball closer to the uprights.
What happened, however, was one of the last things Capers wanted to see.
Beuerlein threw toward the left sidelines to Muhammad, but he threw low. Muhammad scooped up the catch, but was tackled before he went out of bounds.
With no timeouts left, the only way the Panthers had of stopping the clock was to snap the ball and have Beuerlein throw it to the ground.
But the officials seemed to be in no hurry to get the ball to Panthers center Frank Garcia.
``Son of a gun,'' guard Greg Skrepenak said he thought to himself, ``we're not going to this play off. We're in an away stadium. That clock's going to click down to zero.''
It almost did.
Beuerlein made the spike to stop the clock with one second left.
As Kasay trotted onto the field to try his potential game-winning field goal, Beuerlein walked off with his head in his hands.
``I couldn't believe we'd shaved it that close,'' he said.
Kasay said he had been preparing himself for the opportunity to win the game since he had tied the score 6-6 with a 31-yard field goal with 2:39 left.
``I just knew it was going to happen like that,'' Kasay said.
After the Falcons called a timeout in an attempt to ice him, Kasay said he prayed.
``I just said, `Lord, you've promised you'll never give me more than I can handle. I thank you for the opportunity and I hope you'll be glorified through this,' '' Kasay said. ``I meant it with all my heart.''
When his kick sailed through the uprights, many of Kasay's teammates flooded the field to congratulate him.
The celebratory scene was precisely what the Panthers needed to experience together following an August filled with controversy, disappointment and defeats.
``The hardest win of any season is your first one,'' Skrepenak said. ``We had been blank for five games, but this could springboard us into some good things.''
Said Walls, who set career highs with seven receptions for 147 yards: ``A gut-out win like we had is going to help this team build character.''
In the other locker room, the Falcons were blaming themselves for their first home loss in three years to Carolina.
Atlanta's offense couldn't score a touchdown despite three trips inside the Carolina 20.
The Falcons' worst mistake was a fumble at the Panthers 3 in the first quarter by Bob Christian, the former Carolina fullback.
Christian dropped the ball, but the Panthers' re-invigorated defense deserves credit for the Falcons' other failures.
Atlanta managed just eight first downs and 210 yards of total offense, compared to 21 and 321 for the Panthers.
For the first time since late last season, Carolina stopped an opponent's running attack, holding Atlanta to 48 yards rushing.
``Probably some people had questioned whether the Panther defense was going to be as efficient as it was today, but we made the plays when we needed to,'' Capers said. ``I'm proud of the way we played.''
Capers compared the victory to a key early-season win at New Orleans last year. The Saints outplayed the Panthers for three quarters, but Carolina eked out a win.
``You find out a lot about your team in games like this,'' Capers said. ``We had a group of guys who hung in there. It's extremely important to go on the road, get a division win and find a way to win a close game.''
But as good as the Panthers felt Sunday, Walls said he knew they wouldn't have an easy time today when they meet with their coaches to review the game in detail.
``That film is going to be ugly,'' Walls said with a laugh. ``It does not lie. The film is the eye in the sky, and you can't hide from the eye in the sky.
``But we'll take it. We'll be able to look at it and say, `We won a game playing like this. Now, we can get better and win another one. Now we have something we can build on.
``That's what it takes in the NFL today. You just try to win one game at a time and hopefully at the end of the year, you're in the thick of it.''
If the Panthers are in the championship hunt at season's end, they'll likely look back at the Georgia Dome as the place where it all began.
Panthers kicker John Kasay and holder Ken Walter watch Kasay's 39-yard field goal as time ran out Sunday sail through the uprights, contrary to the wishes of Atlanta's Ray Buchanan (34), and give Carolina the win, its first this season. The game almost went to overtime, but the Panthers were able to stop the clock for Kasay with a second left.