CHARLOTTE -- Not much that happens tonight will matter when the Carolina Panthers visit Pittsburgh.
But it's the 36 hours or so after the game that will decide the direction of the team this year. Tonight's preseason finale is the last chance for some players to make an impression, though much of the heavy lifting's already been done.
They have to reduce the roster from 75 to 54 (the soon-to-be suspended Steve Smith notwithstanding) by Saturday afternoon. Here's a position-by-position look at the choices:
IN: John Kasay, Rhys Lloyd, Jason Baker, Jason Kyle.
Let's get this one out of the way first, since it impacts so many other decisions.
There's not even any questioning it anymore. Lloyd's on the team. They just have to find the roster spot for him.
If he'd have come in and been just OK, it's one thing. But the English kickoff specialist has the opportunity to change field position by big chunks, and they're not giving that away.
IN: Jake Delhomme, Matt Moore; ON THE BUBBLE: Brett Basanez.
It's not whether they have another quarterback in mind they like better than Basanez.
It's whether they want to keep two quarterbacks or three. Basanez can go on the practice squad, and unless he absolutely lights it up tonight, it's hard to imagine people lining up to claim him.
IN: DeAngelo Williams, Jonathan Stewart, Nick Goings, Brad Hoover; ON THE BUBBLE: LaBrandon Toefield, DeCori Birmingham; OUT: Troy Fleming.
This might be another position where the extra kicker pinches them. Goings is too versatile and valuable. But as much as they'd like to have Toefield or Birmingham, they might not have the spot for either.
When the count gets close, a fourth running back who's not carrying the ball unless all heck breaks loose is not as useful as some other things.
IN: Steve Smith, Muhsin Muhammad, Dwayne Jarrett, Ryne Robinson; ON THE BUBBLE: D.J. Hackett, Chris Hannon, Dominique Thompson, Travis Taylor, Samie Parker; OUT: William Buchanon.
The first four are staying, and Hackett will because he's talented and close to ready. But if it was based on performance, he'd have watched his way onto the bubble.
Taylor has experience as does Parker. Hannon has pure speed (fastest guy on the roster), and Thompson has great hands, one of those guys who just makes plays.
But let's not kid ourselves. If you assume Hackett's safe and they're confident Robinson's going to be back in a few weeks, then the sixth guy is probably on another roster this morning. They're going to glean through the cuts from other teams, and the best one's likely to make his way here, especially if he can return kicks or punts.
This weekend is big for Robinson. His injury impacts his lateral mobility, and punt returners and slot receivers tend to need that. If the progress doesn't look good now, they might not wait for him to get better.
IN: Jeff King, Dante Rosario; ON THE BUBBLE: Gary Barnidge, Chad Upshaw.
King and Rosario are a solid two-headed option, one a good blocker and one a dynamic receiver. They're not going to cut Barnidge, but they'd like to keep Upshaw near, because he's made plays in both aspects since coming back. Tough call, but the first three are probably it.
IN: Jordan Gross, Travelle Wharton, Ryan Kalil, Keydrick Vincent, Jeff Otah, Geoff Hangartner, Jeremy Bridges; ON THE BUBBLE: Frank Omiyale, Milford Brown, Toniu Fonoti, Geoff Schwartz, Mackenzy Bernardeau; OUT: Evan Mathis, Rueben Riley.
With the numbers issues, it's easy to see a situation in which they can keep either Bridges or Omiyale, and that's not close. In reality, their backup left tackle is their left guard (Wharton). The biggest question is whether they can keep both Brown and Fonoti. Brown's the more versatile of the pair, but they're loathe to give up on a guy with as much upside as Fonoti, the former All-Pro from San Diego.
It would be perfect if they could stash Schwartz and Bernardeau on the practice squad for a year, and they'd probably be able to. Schwartz could use the time to learn to play guard. He's too slow-footed to play outside, but he's so big and strong you don't just jettison him.
It's hard to remember a swifter fall from grace than Mathis'. Two years ago, he was a 15-game starter. This year, he was thinking about losing weight and playing tight end or defensive end. In fairness to the former third-round pick, the constant bouncing from tackle to guard to center didn't help. He just doesn't fit anymore.
IN: Julius Peppers, Tyler Brayton, Charles Johnson; ON THE BUBBLE: Stanley McClover, Hilee Taylor.
There's no mystery in who'll make it, only in when the other two will show something.
McClover is as explosive as most of the elite pass-rushers in the NFL. It's time to show some of it. He's never developed much in the way of pass-rush moves, leaning too heavily on his physical talent. The only unresolved point is whether they wait for him one more year, or invest their developmental time in the promising Taylor, who may already be more refined.
The thing that might buy McClover another year is that someone else would surely claim him, because he has shown flashes, and pass-rushers are scarce.
IN: Damione Lewis, Maake Kemoeatu, Gary Gibson; ON THE BUBBLE: Darwin Walker, Nick Hayden; OUT: Steve Williams.
Walker was thought to be the insurance policy, but hasn't shown much in preseason. His odds are good, but they don't want to risk exposing Hayden to waivers. They love his strength and think he can play over the nose, so he might get the nod.
If they were in a pinch, they could move Brayton inside, since he has good pass-rush moves.
IN: Thomas Davis, Jon Beason, Na'il Diggs, Dan Connor, Donte Curry; ON THE BUBBLE: Adam Seward, Landon Johnson, James Anderson, Tim Shaw.
Unlike years past, there's no automatic out.
Even Anderson had a good enough camp to merit consideration. Seward's likely to stay to be Beason's parachute, and Johnson will get a year after failing to win a job over Diggs. But it's going to hurt them to cut Shaw, one of their better special teamers a year ago.
IN: Ken Lucas, Chris Gamble, Richard Marshall; ON THE BUBBLE: Ricardo Colclough, Dante Wesley; OUT: C.J. Wilson, Darren Toney.
The fourth job might not be as cut and dried as some think. Colclough has looked better in games than in camp, and as good as Wesley is in the kicking game, he's scary (not in a good way) on defense.
They're going to be eye-balling the waiver wire, and the fourth (or perhaps fifth) guy might not even be here now.
IN: Chris Harris, Charles Godfrey, Terrence Holt; ON THE BUBBLE: Quinton Teal, Nate Salley; OUT: Joe Fields.
Since Holt can play both safety spots, the need to keep a dedicated backup for both is gone. Whether it's Teal or Salley comes down to which one special teams coach Danny Crossman prefers.
WANT TO WATCH?
• What: Panthers at Steelers
• TV: FOX (cable channel 11 in Rock Hill)
• Time: 7 p.m.