CHARLOTTE – The Panthers keep talking about building for the future.
Which is fine when you're in the blueprint stages, or pouring a foundation, or putting up the first studs. What they were lacking is visible progress. They finally got a little of that Sunday, and they needed it.
In the short term, beating a playoff-contending but still-sloppy Washington Football Team might not mean all that much for the Panthers.
What they're hoping is that some of the character traits they showed will prove more important than any individual plays.
"For us to have a new staff and new players, it's about building each and every week," veteran safety Tre Boston said. "I told y'all a few weeks back, when that wall on the house is just one wall, everybody's going to talk stuff about it.
"But as we build this house, and make it a home, we're going to be one to reckon with."
It would be easy to overstate some of the individual components of the game. They played well enough on defense, but it wasn't as much a lockdown performance as it was receiving the gifts Washington quarterback Dwayne Haskins gave them.
Washington ended up benching Haskins, when a win would have secured the NFC East title.
And the second part of that sentence wasn't lost on the Panthers.
Cornerback Donte Jackson said it became a pride thing: "We're not going to let you clinch on us."
Some day, their goals will be about them, but at the moment, this is what they have to grab onto.
"A lot of parts of this season, we were searching to find our identity, to find out what we do and what we have," Jackson said. "That's what we're doing. We were trying to find our identity, but we found it.
"We're hard, we're tough-nosed, and we're going to fight for a whole game. That's what we're preaching on that side of the ball. Shaq Thompson keeps preaching to keep guys going, and he has us out there with a lot of confidence. That's what we're going to do."
The defense needed to carry the day because the Panthers' offense still wasn't anything resembling smooth.
They needed Brandon Zylstra's recovery of a muffed punt for a touchdown to break a slow start for both teams, and when that happened, the Panthers' offense and defense ran onto the field in a moment of jubilation.
That caused a brief moment of consternation for head coach Matt Rhule (who was worried about having enough guys on the field for the extra point, which they missed), but he liked the theme that his guys were celebrating something collectively.
He also liked that they were able to run the ball 35 times, and play the kind of defense to win a close game late in the season.
"To me, that's how most teams win in December," Rhule said. "A lot of things happen early in the year, but the teams that win in December, they run the ball, they play good defense, they take the ball away.
"We're not perfect in those areas, but we're a team that I hope has a plan, and everyone tries to complement each other. And if you're on the sideline, you felt a team that was playing for each other, that was playing together. That was not any one person trying to do it. We've come a long way in that regard. . . .
"They're enjoying playing for each other. In my mind, that's as big as anything. When the moment doesn't feel too big, when you expect to win, and you run the ball and play defense, protect the ball, and play good special teams, you always have a chance, at least in December."
Moments to celebrate have been few and far between for the Panthers.
Losing eight of their previous nine games — and three in a row after beating a Lions team that would fire a coach days later — made it reasonable to wonder if the plan worked.
Despite that lack of positive reinforcement, they continued with the plan, and for a moment Sunday against a team with problems of its own, the plan worked.
Rhule talked about defensive end Brian Burns playing through a knee injury, along with a number of other players who were putting themselves out there for a team that has no playoff hopes — this year. To play hurt is one thing in a playoff hunt. To do it in a lost season is something else, especially considering the recent trend.
"Honestly, I think that in itself shows the toughness and the will of this team," Burns said. "Going through a season like this, and we're still battling, all these close games, losing by one possession, that really kills your confidence. It kills you.
"But to see these guys battle, even though we're not going to the playoffs, to see them battling for the win, and what they did out here today, shows a lot of toughness, and that's what we're trying to implement into this team."
View game action photos of Carolina's Week 16 game at Washington.