What to watch: Panthers vs. Steelers

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- It won't mean anything in the annals of NFL history, but the Carolina Panthers have a chance to do something in Thursday night's preseason finale against the Pittsburgh Steelers they haven't since 2006.

Have a winning preseason record.

Only twice during the past six years have the Panthers (2-1) escaped with even a .500 record. So maybe from a confidence standpoint the 7:30 p.m. game will mean something.

Remember, in 2003 Carolina went 4-0 during the preseason coming off a 7-9 record as it is this year, and went 11-5 during the regular season, then advanced to the Super Bowl before losing to New England.

But in 2004 and 2006 the Panthers went 4-0 during the preseason, then 7-9 and 8-8 during the regular season. And the 2008 team went 2-2 in the preseason, then 12-4 in the regular season.

So the preseason record really determines nothing, particularly if you're a starter like quarterback Cam Newton, who may or may not even play.

But it will mean something to players trying to make the roster before it is trimmed from 75 to 53 on Saturday.

Here are three things that may keep your interest:

  • Who will be the third receiver? It's safe to say Steve Smith and Brandon LaFell are the top two. A lot of eyes will be on Domenik Hixon, who has been sidelined with a hamstring injury. He has gone from the player most likely to be No. 3 to on the bubble. The main competition has been between Armanti Edwards and David Gettis, with return specialist Ted Ginn Jr. figuring into the mix. So this could be Hixon's coming out party -- or sendoff.

  • Where's Wharton? Free agent guard Travelle Wharton was brought back on Sunday night to shore up the injury-plagued offensive line. In his first practice he already was working some with the first team, mostly on the left beside tackle Jordan Gross as he did for much of his first seven seasons. Wharton hasn't played since suffering a season-ending knee injury during a 2012 preseason game with the Bengals, so he'll need a few snaps. So will the entire unit that struggled before the arrival of Wharton, so it will be interesting to see if he has a stabilizing effect.

  • Cam Newton vs. himself? There's a chance Newton won't dress like a year ago. But with the first-team offense struggling to score touchdowns -- one on a short field -- and the changes on the offensive line, the staff has to be tempted to give the franchise quarterback a series or two to get into a rhythm. "We're going to be careful and be smart,'' coach Ron Rivera said. "We're banged up in a couple of places. We want to expose these guys as little as possible.''