Steve Beuerlein called it a quarterback's worst nightmare.
Beuerlein walked into the Carolina Panthers' locker room just before Sunday night's game against Atlanta and found out that his leading wide receiver, Muhsin Muhammad, had pulled a hamstring in warmups.
News of Muhammad's injury came three days after fellow wideout Rae Carruth, Carolina's first-round draft choice in 1997, was jailed on three felony charges for allegedly plotting to try to kill his pregnant girlfriend.
"I don't know what to say except how proud I am that he stepped in there and played like an old pro," Beuerlein said after Hayes had five catches for 133 yards to lead Carolina to a 34-28 victory. "Heck, he played like an All-Pro."
Hayes' contributions helped the Panthers (5-6) win back-to-back games for the first time since December 1998 and end a three-game losing skid to their NFC West neighbors.
Afterward, Hayes walked out of the showers and found a small army of reporters waiting at his locker stall.
"I got a chance to show people what I can do other than practice," he said. "I think I did all right."
Coach George Seifert laughed when asked about the 6-foot-4 208-pound Hayes, a fourth-round draft choice out of Wisconsin in 1998.
"He fulfilled his role quite admirably," Seifert said.
Carolina, trying to stay alive for an NFC wild-card berth, also got 262 yards passing and three touchdowns from Beuerlein and 2 1/2 sacks by Kevin Greene.
Chris Chandler matched is career-high by throwing four scoring passes for Atlanta, but the Falcons (2-9) were penalized 14 times, including four pass-interference calls that contributed to a pair of Carolina touchdowns. The result was the Falcons' third consecutive loss and their fifth in six games. They have the worst 11-game record for a team that played in the previous Super Bowl.
"That's the thing that frustrates you and sets you back," coach Dan Reeves said of the penalties. "That's a discipline thing. When we had a chance to win it, that's what's discouraging."
The Falcons rallied from a 34-14 deficit on a pair of scoring passes by Chandler in the last 8:34. And they got the ball at the Carolina 20-yard line with 2:59 left when Travis Hall recovered Tshimanga Biakabutuka's fumble. But Greene sacked Chandler and knocked the ball loose, and Carolina's Esera Tuaolo pounced on it to end the threat.
Atlanta got one last chance, starting at its 31 with 56 seconds remaining. But the Falcons turned the ball over on downs at their 38.
"That's kind of the way it's gone," Reeves said. "We have an opportunity to win one, and we just can't make the plays to do it."
Once Muhammad injured his hamstring, Seifert said he didn't want to risk further injury for a player whose 63 receptions and 940 yards were second in the NFC. Instead, Seifert decided to go with Hayes, and he had an immediate impact, catching four passes for 123 yards in the first half.
"I don't know that we were really surprised," Seifert said. "Don has some obvious skills, and he took advantage of them."
Hayes' 37-yard diving reception set up Carolina's first score, a 30-yard field goal by John Kasay. Hayes gave the Panthers a 13-7 lead in the second quarter, powering past Ronnie Bradford for a 56-yard scoring pass down the left sideline. His 16-yard reception set up the score that put Carolina ahead to stay, a 1-yard toss from Beuerlein to Patrick Jeffers.
Biakabutuka's 11-yard scoring run in the third quarter and Beuerlein's 11-yard pass to Wesley Walls early in the fourth put the Panthers up by 20.
Hayes' first half helped the Panthers overcome what has been a problem all season, inconsistent play in their secondary. Chandler had just six touchdown passes in the Falcons' first 10 games, but he had two in the second quarter, giving Atlanta a 14-13 lead when he linked up with Bob Christian on an 11-yard scoring ply with 56 seconds remaining.
But Hayes, William Floyd and Walls all made big plays in the Atlanta secondary as Carolina drove 62 yards in seven plays, going up 20-14 on Beuerlein's strike to Jeffers with four seconds left in the half. The Falcons were called for pass interference twice late in the drive.
©1999 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed