CHARLOTTE — When Denver and Cincinnati won Sunday to get to four victories, it put the Carolina Panthers on the clock with the first pick in next year's draft.
But the more immediate drama is the countdown to Jan. 15, the deadline for underclassmen to enter the draft.
For weeks Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck has been the presumed No.1 pick. Given the Panthers' struggles at quarterback this season and Luck's billing as a once-in-a-decade prospect, draft experts say Carolina has to grab him if the third-year sophomore enters the draft.
"I don't care what you think about Jimmy Clausen, you've got to pick Luck at this stage of the game because he's a franchise type quarterback," said Mike Detillier, a Louisiana-based draft analyst. "And also look around at (the Panthers') competition."
With successful, young quarterbacks populating the NFC South, Detillier said the Panthers need Luck to compete with Drew Brees, Matt Ryan and Josh Freeman for the foreseeable future.
But if Luck stays in school or the Panthers put their faith in Clausen and opt to trade down, Detillier said Carolina should use the No.1 pick on a pass-rushing beast to try to put the aforementioned quarterbacks on their backsides.
"It's all about pressure," Detillier said. "And if you look at this draft class, which I think is going to be heavily junior-laden early on, I think you have to find a defensive end or defensive tackle that can give you that pressure."
Besides quarterback, the Panthers' most glaring need is at defensive tackle, a position that has produced just four of the team's 30 sacks this season. But there are other holes to fill.
The Panthers likely will be in the market for at least one cornerback with starter Richard Marshall expected to sign elsewhere. And the future of receiver Steve Smith remains uncertain, despite the fact that he has two years remaining on his contract.
Smith said last week he would not discuss his contract until after the season when he sits down with his wife and family. If the Panthers decided to trade him, that could change their approach to the draft.
Draft experts agree the biggest impact defensive linemen are Clemson end Da'Quan Bowers and Auburn tackle Nick Fairley. Both are juniors who are expected to declare for the draft.
After starting just two games as a sophomore, Fairley took over games this season with his quickness and ability to knife into opposing backfields.
"He went from being an average or slightly above-average defensive tackle to being a dominant guy at that position," said Detillier, publisher of the M&D Draft Report. "He's a big guy in the middle. And what makes him unique is his speed, his quickness and his pass-rush skills. You don't see a lot of interior linemen with those pass-rush skills."
While Fairley has posted 10.5 sacks from his tackle spot, Bowers leads the nation with 15.5 for the Tigers, who will play South Florida on Friday in the Meineke Car Care Bowl in Charlotte.
Russ Lande, The Sporting News' draft expert, compared Bowers to the Panthers' Charles Johnson, a power-rush end whose 11.5 sacks this year rank seventh in the NFL.
Lande said Bowers "doesn't have that rare, explosive burst you'd love to see from a defensive end," but called him a special player.
"He might not have that burst," Lande added, "but once he gets moving he can get the corner."
Lande also praised Bowers' competitiveness, saying he has not seen him take plays off as former Panther Julius Peppers did.
"This guy's a warrior," Lande said. "Every snap it's 100 miles an hour."
Lande and Detillier believe Georgia junior A.J. Green will be the best receiver in the draft when he turns pro, as expected. But the two disagree on Louisiana State junior Patrick Peterson, whom Detillier thinks will be the highest-rated cornerback.
Lande believes Peterson's reputation as a lockdown cover corner is overrated, citing examples this year when he let an opposing receiver catch as many as six passes on him.
But there is no disagreement about Luck, who has thrown for 3,051 yards and 28 touchdowns heading into next week's Orange Bowl matchup against Virginia Tech.
Lande believes Luck's decision is tied to the future of Stanford coach Jim Harbaugh, who has been mentioned as a candidate at Michigan if his alma mater fires Rich Rodriguez, and for a number of NFL vacancies, including the Panthers'.
If Harbaugh stays, Lande thinks chances are good Luck stays. If Luck comes out, Lande said the Panthers should prepare for a wild draft lead-up.
"There will be teams climbing over one another for the first pick for the first time in years," he said.
And for the first time since their expansion season of 1995, the Panthers are the ones holding it.