The NFL Draft. (Jim McIsaac/Getty)
The Carolina Panthers are on the clock. The Panthers got a late Christmas present Sunday, wrapping up the No. 1 pick in the 2011 NFL draft regardless of what happens next week at Atlanta.
By virtue of improbable wins by Denver and Cincinnati on Sunday afternoon, the Panthers (2-13) are assured the worst record in the league thus giving them the top pick and the rights to Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck if he comes out of the draft. That would mean the Panthers would have to decide this offseason if Jimmy Clausen has shown enough to be their quarterback of the future -- or if they'll turn to the 6-foot-4, 234-pound Luck, who has drawn comparisons to Peyton Manning because of his arm strength, poise and leadership.
After Thursday night's loss to Pittsburgh, the Panthers entered the weekend at 2-13 with Denver and Cincinnati both lingering right behind at 3-11. However, Denver and Cincinnati pulled upsets on Sunday with Tim Tebow rallying the Broncos from 13 points down in the fourth quarter to beat Houston 24-23 and Carson Palmer throwing four touchdowns in a 34-20 upset of San Diego.
Since the Panthers can do no better than 3-13, they are assured the No. 1 pick.
It will mark the first time since their expansion season in 1995 the Panthers have had the No. 1 pick in the NFL draft. In that year the Panthers, under the direction of former general manager Bill Polian, traded down to the fifth spot to take Penn State's Kerry Collins, acquiring a high second-round draft pick in return.
Most scouts believe the Panthers would be crazy to trade down this year and pass on Luck if he comes out.
--The Carolina Panthers will begin preparing for their final game Sunday under coach John Fox when they return to work this week following a 27-3 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers on Thursday night.
Coach John Fox
The Panthers (2-13) will close out a miserable season at the Georgia Dome against the Atlanta Falcons in what will be Fox's final game as Panthers head coach.
Fox will leave Carolina a lot like he found them - with a horrible record.
Fox inherited a team that went 1-15 under coach George Seifert in 2001, losing their final 15 games.
He took over in 2002 and talked about smartness and toughness and got the Panthers back to respectability right away with a 7-9 record in his first season. The following year he took the Panthers to their only Super Bowl, paving the way for a nine-year run as coach of the Panthers.
Only three other coaches have been with their teams longer than Fox - New England's Bill Belichick, Tennessee's Jeff Fisher and Philadelphia's Andy Reid.
The Panthers went to the playoffs three times in nine seasons under Fox - in 2003, 2005 and 2008. They were 5-3 in those games, twice reaching the NFC Championship game. But he was never able to get the Panthers to the playoffs in back-to-back seasons, one of the reasons Carolina owner Jerry Richardson did not grant Fox a contract extension this past offseason. Fox was free last year to talk with any other teams but didn't like his options and decided to play out the string in Carolina.
Fox will finish with a winning record with the Panthers but not by much. He's 73-70 as the team's coach.
As for Fox, his destination remains unclear.
His ideal job would be with the New York Giants and with Tom Coughlin possibly headed out the door, there's a chance that could happen. Cleveland is another possibility.
LINEUP WATCH: With starting fullback Tony Fiammetta out this past Thursday night against Pittsburgh with an ankle injury, the Panthers called up Rashawn Jackson from the practice squad. Jackson saw action on a handful of plays against the Steelers on Thursday night, but the Panthers primarily went with a one-back offense. The Panthers had announced Tyrell Sutton as their starter against the Steelers but that never materialized.
Fiammetta's status for the season finale against the Atlanta is unknown.
TRENDING: Defensive end Charles Johnson is on an amazing run for the Panthers befitting a guy who is in his contract year.
Johnson has a sack in each of his last six games and eight total during that span.
Johnson has 11.5 sacks for the season, which ranks only 3.5 behind the franchise record set by Hall of Fame nominee Kevin Greene.
This is Johnson's first year as the team's starting defensive end playing in place of Julius Peppers, who left to join the Chicago Bears.
--CB Chris Gamble probably won't participate in Carolina's season finale against Atlanta due to an ankle injury.
--DT Ed Johnson was inactive Thursday night for the Panthers raising the likelihood he won't be back next season.
--WR Steve Smith has not scored a touchdown since Week 2, the longest draught of his NFL career.
--CB Robert McClain, a seventh-round pick from Texas A&M, struggled this past Thursday night with coverage from his nickel position.
--RB Mike Goodson fumbled a kickoff against the Steelers.
--FB Tony Fiammetta (ankle) did not suit up on Thursday night.