IF ONLY THEY PLAYED BY college rules, the Carolina Panthers would have entered Sunday's game against Minnesota with a chance to go bowling.
Instead, this is the next level, and they play for the same reasons accountants show up after taxes are filed each year on April 15 - because it's their job.
The Panthers were 5-8 when they started the evening's entertainment against the Vikings, who had clinched the NFC North Division shortly before kickoff by virtue of Green Bay's loss to Pittsburgh.
Three more wins would not get them a trip to Shreveport or Boise for a bowl game sponsored by a lawn care product.
By the time it was over and Carolina, behind backup quarterback Matt Moore, had dispatched playoff-bound Minnesota and Hall of Fame-to-be quarterback Brett Favre 26-7, a miserable Panthers season seemed to reveal a bit of hope for the future.
No, this was not a star-is-born moment for Moore, who was 21-for-33 for 299 yards, no interceptions and three touchdowns.
"Against a very, very good defense, he did a fine job," Carolina coach John Fox said. "We came out and played one of our more complete games of the season, so that was nice to see."
This was a moment when it seemed clear that Moore is capable of playing in the NFL. That, in itself, is something worthwhile the Panthers can take away from this game.
The season has been a resounding failure, which is what you might suspect after right tackle Jeff Otah went on the injured reserve list, making it an even 10 players Carolina has lost to injury. That, plus a stunning decline in production from the starting quarterback makes a recipe for disaster that would ruin the season for any team in the league.
The Panthers have known for a while that they aren't headed to the playoffs. They've had time to adjust to the circumstance and they did it admirably.
They aren't going anywhere as a team, but they earned themselves respect by playing the way they did. In this league, there are no excuses for a lack of effort and Fox was pleased with what he saw.
Moore got the feel as the game wore on. He was an unremarkable 3-for-5 for 32 yards after the first quarter, but in the two middle quarters he was 16-for-26 for 139 yards and a touchdown. He threw three more in the fourth quarter and by that time, most folks had forgotten former South Carolina wide receiver Sidney Rice was even on the field for the Vikings.
Rice caught 4 passes for 69 yards, but he also lost a fumble. Another ex-Gamecock, linebacker Jasper Brinkley, played well as a Minnesota starter but had to leave the game in the second half with leg cramps.
This wasn't the greatest show on turf or anything close to it, and there's no suggestion here that Matt Moore is the answer, but with a different quarterback - Jake Delhomme has 8 touchdown passes and 18 interceptions this year - and something more closely resembling a normal season with respect to injuries, the Panthers might return to their playoff-hunting selves as soon as next season.
At the moment, the best things they can do are play hard and win. On this night, they got the job done, like professionals.