CHARLOTTE – Given how easy they made it look on the field, it was hard to believe it had been nearly two months since the Carolina Panthers had enjoyed the thrill of victory.
But in the locker room after Sunday's 19-12 triumph over the Arizona Cardinals in the final home game of 2010, it was obvious how long it had been.
"There was a lot of hugging," linebacker Jon Beason said after the Panthers (2-12) ended their seven-game losing streak. "Last home game - maybe the last home game for a lot of guys here - so it was a good day.
"We're a family. This game is real combative, and if you're not a family - more than friends - it's tough to win. Today we played as a group, with one heartbeat, and it showed."
Following the victory, a game in which the Panthers never trailed and never really seemed in danger of losing, left tackle Jordan Gross secured the football used on the final snap and presented it to head coach John Fox.
It's safe to say that Fox will cherish it.
"We've developed a lot of relationships here," Fox said. "I told the guys in that locker room, I appreciate it. It means a lot to me.
"It was fun to finish with a win here. It's been a tough season for all of our fans, our organization, everyone in that locker room. It was good to end up on a win."
The Panthers dominated the Cardinals (4-10) from the start, with the defense forcing Arizona into its first of five three-and-outs to open the game, then the offense driving for the first of four John Kasay field goals.
After the defense set the tone, running back Jonathan Stewart ripped off a 35-yard run on Carolina's first play from scrimmage.
Stewart eventually rumbled for 137 rushing yards – more yards than the entire Cardinals offense managed before its final two drives of the game.
"After a couple of runs, I don't think they wanted to tackle Stew anymore," fellow running back Mike Goodson said. "He's a big guy, and he pounded them and pounded them.
"We came out, we played hard. All week we said we were going to get this win in the last home game, and then we went out and got it."
The outcome would have lacked any drama at all if the Panthers had been better in the red zone, but they had to settle for field goals on three drives that reached at least the Cardinals' 12-yard line.
The one drive where they didn't settle forced the Cardinals to play a losing game of catch-up the rest of the day. Already ahead 6-0, the Panthers pounced when safety Sherrod Martin picked off an errant John Skelton pass at midfield and worked his way down the left sideline for a 34-yard return.
On the next play, quarterback Jimmy Clausen sold play action and found tight end Jeff King wide open in the left flat. After initially turning the wrong way for Clausen's loft, King adjusted and then coasted into the end zone for a 16-yard score and a 13-0 lead midway through the second quarter.
At halftime, up 13-3, the Panthers didn't assume anything. Two weeks ago, Carolina led 14-3 at halftime in Seattle but headed home with a 31-14 loss.
"That's one of the things we talked about in the locker room," said Clausen, who completed 13 of 19 passes for 141 yards to earn his first victory as a starter. "Steve (Smith) said it best: 'We've been here before. We just need to go out and finish.'
"I think we did a great job in all three phases of going out and finishing."
The Panthers extended their lead out of the halftime break, when Arizona tried to surprise Carolina with an onside kick, but linebacker Jordan Senn fell on it. That set up yet another Kasay field goal for a 16-3 edge.
Carolina wouldn't truly be able to relax, however, until Senn recovered yet another onside kick. Kasay extended Carolina's lead to 19-3 with his longest field goal of the day – a 43-yarder – late in the third quarter, but the Panthers wouldn't score again.
Arizona finally got it going in the game's waning minutes, picking up 134 of their 218 yards on their final two drives. The Cardinals scored a touchdown with 5:41 left and kicked a field goal with 54 seconds left to pull within 19-12, but Senn – who addressed the team with an inspirational speech Saturday evening – recovered the onside kick to seal it.
"We did a lot of things right today," Stewart said. "We worked together as a team, on offense, defense and special teams. When you looked on the sideline, everybody was just having fun.
"It was just a good day. You couldn't ask for anything better."