FOXBORO - The last preseason game is the great equalizer.
You can be a highly recognizable individual such as Tim Tebow, or relative nobodies such as Quentin Sims or Michael Buchanan, and you're still equal in the eyes of those who ultimately control your future.
This is the Last Chance Saloon. Twenty-two players on the Patriots' roster this morning will have to be released, reserved or otherwise redistributed after tonight's preseason finale at Gillette Stadium against the New York Giants (7:30 p.m.; Ch. 4, 12). Play well in what limited time you have, and you may have a shot - either in Foxboro, or elsewhere if a scout liked what he saw. Perform poorly, and it's a one-way ticket home.
Patriots' coach Bill Belichick told members of the radio broadcast team last week that he felt he had 80 percent of his roster set going into the third preseason game, the highly disappointing 40-9 loss to Detroit. That's roughly 42 out of 53 players, leaving a possible 11 openings in Belichick's mind - and thus, putting 33 players on the current roster on alert that only one-third of them have a chance of surviving to the Sept. 8 opener at Buffalo.
That also does not count players currently on other rosters who are bouncing around on their own personal bubbles. At no time in the NFL year is it more accurate to say that on the day of the final cut, one team's garbage can be gold to another team. It's almost a certainty that players released somewhere else will find their way into the Patriots' uniform before the middle of the week leading to the opener at Ralph Wilson Stadium.
All the while, the discussions continue.
"There are a lot of conversations that are still going on," Belichick said earlier in the week. "I don't think there's a whole lot that's set. There are a lot of things we're still kicking around. Some things will take care of themselves, some things will settle themselves. Other things we'll have to make a decision on. When it comes time to make that decision, we'll get as much information as we can and try to make the best decision that we can for the team."
Most of the decisions to this point have been relatively easy ones. Perhaps the only surprise among the first round of cuts was the departure of veteran linebacker Niko Koutouvides, a core member of the Patriots' special teams, who just didn't have enough to offer outside the "suicide squads" to warrant his continued employment - and yet, it wouldn't be a total surprise if he isn't picked up elsewhere, stays in the area and keeps in shape, and somehow finds his way back onto the roster when the normal attrition of a season takes its toll.
It's highly unlikely, even with the poor performance in Detroit still fresh in memory, that Belichick will risk many of his front-line players for very long against the Giants tonight. Unlike many teams around the NFL, the Patriots have avoided catastrophic injuries to any of their starters since the last week of July, and Belichick would certainly like to keep it that way as he prepares to face a Buffalo team that has had to sign a fellow off the street to be their starting quarterback in the opener.
So, expect this to be the night in which some battles are finally settled.
This could be the most extensive playing time of the season for Tebow, whose presence on the roster is still an unsolvable mystery to those who have watched him stumble through practices as well as preseason games.
The battle between ex-Buc LeGarrette Blount and Brandon Bolden to be the last running back on the depth chart may be renewed tonight. And while the Patriots appear to have settled their receiving roster to include newcomer Danny Amendola, veterans Julian Edelman and Matthew Slater and rookies Kenbrell Thompkins, Aaron Dobson and Josh Boyce, a circus catch or two by Sims, the 6-foot-3 rookie from Tennessee-Martin, could heighten his chances of continuing his career elsewhere.
The Patriots are continuing their search for depth along both lines, but Buchanan, the rookie defensive lineman from Illinois, could make a case for himself in extended playing time tonight. Even the ongoing battle between veteran punter Zoltan Mesko and rookie Ryan Allen should be in its final throes, Mesko appearing to have fended off the challenge successfully.
For a few veteran Patriots that have struggled to get onto the field in this camp - tight end Daniel Fells and defensive end Jermaine Cunningham - tonight could be crucial to their future with the team. The same can't be said for many younger players at the bottom of the depth chart, who will go through the motions and hope that something they do will register as positive enough to give them hope of a practice-squad offer, or at least keep their phone numbers on the speed-dial lists of those who'll seek emergency help later in the season.
Patriots cut CB Dowling
The Patriots have released cornerback Ras-I Dowling two years after drafting him in the second round.
Dowling played only nine games for the Patriots after being taken with the 33rd overall pick in 2011 out of Virginia. He started the first two games in his rookie season before being placed on injured reserve with a hip injury. He played as a backup in the first seven games last year then went on injured reserve with a thigh injury.
He had a total of 10 tackles.
New England replaced him on the roster Wednesday with rookie linebacker Ja'Gared Davis after he was waived by the Houston Texans.
The Patriots also claimed rookie defensive lineman Gilbert Pena off waivers from the Green Bay Packers and cut rookie offensive lineman Brice Schwab.