NFL players, owners, and fans are hoping this is the week that brings some clarity to the league's nearly 2-month-old lockout - or at least provides a more firm time line for how long the ongoing uncertainty may last.

All eyes interested in the labor dispute remain focused on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit, as they have been for more than a week, awaiting a ruling on the NFL's request for a long-term stay that would leave the owners' lockout in place until at least early June.

A three-judge panel had been expected to rule last week but did not, leaving the lockout on - and owners and players in limbo, not knowing whether league business would remain on hold or at least another month, or if free agency and trades were around the corner.

The panel, by a 2-1 vote, issued a temporary stay April 29, leaving the work stoppage in place by putting on hold an injunction ordered by U.S. District Judge Susan Richard Nelson. A request for a longer stay has been pending since then.

If the judges reject the owners' request for a longer stay, Nelson's order will take effect and the lockout will be lifted, forcing the league to resume trades and free agency and letting players back into team facilities. If they grant the stay, the lockout remains in place until at least June 3, when the panel will hear arguments on an appeal of Nelson's decision.

A ruling after that hearing will probably take days, if not weeks, and would give a more firm determination of whether the lockout can go on indefinitely or if it is illegal and must end.

The fight over the stay is the immediate front in a longer battle over the legality of the lockout.

Nelson ruled in April that the players are suffering irreparable harm from the lockout and that the owners do not have the right to bar individual players - who decertified as a union - from working. The owners are appealing that decision. The stays have allowed them to keep the lockout on while the appeal unfolds.

While the stay decision might lead to immediate movement, the full appeal will have a larger effect on the lockout and prospects for the 2011 season. If the owners win their appeal and the lockout holds, players face a fall without pay and pressure to make concessions at the bargaining table.

If, on the other hand, the appeal fails and the lockout is deemed illegal, owners will have to open their doors and begin paying players, all while facing an antitrust suit. In that scenario, it will be the league with incentive to settle.

In either case, the expedited schedule on the appeal - hence the June 3 hearing - means that the leverage in the labor fight will be determined months before the scheduled start of the season, leaving time to negotiate after the primary legal maneuvers have played out.

The best chance for football to resume before then, though, is for the judges to deny the long-term stay. Like last week, many will be watching.