In the preseason, it looked like this Week 17 matchup between the Philadelphia Eagles and New York Giants could be the one that decided the NFC East.
Instead, the Redskins and Cowboys will be doing that on Sunday night, while the Giants and Eagles play early on Sunday with two completely different motivations.
For Philadelphia, it's about clinging to job security. Most expect head coach Andy Reid and quarterback Michael Vick to be let go almost instantly after the season, but until Jeffrey Lurie sends them a pink slip, there's still a chance. Nevertheless, as losers of 10 of their last 11 games, the Eagles may want this game for pride more than anything.
On the other side of the field, the Giants are still desperately clinging to their playoff chances. They have exactly an 8.5 percent chance of making in, according to Grantland's Bill Barnwell. New York needs to win against the Eagles and have three other matchups to go its way to land a No. 6 seed.
That's a long way to fall for the defending Super Bowl champs, who started the season 6-2 before faltering down the stretch. Regardless, a win on Sunday could wind up being Tom Coughlin's squad's savior.
With both sides desperately wanting a victory, let's take a look at the keys for both sides in Sunday's clash of NFC opponents.
Michael Vick Must Fare Well in Audition for Other Teams
While the 32-year-old quarterback may have told USA Today's Robert Klemko that his start on Sunday isn't an audition, everyone knows that's what it is. After two straight disappointing seasons, Vick may have a difficult time finding a starting job on the open market and this will be the last time teams see him before the offseason.
Fair or not, how he performs against the Giants will have a direct correlation with the interest he gets in free agency.
All told, Vick could have picked a worse time to return to the starting lineup. Heading into Week 17, the Giants have given up the fifth-most passing yards and allow the most yards per attempt in the NFL. One of Vick's few bright spots this season actually came in Week 4 against New York, where he threw for 241 yards and a touchdown while putting up a 90.1 QBR.
That was by far his best performance of 2012 and the Eagles came out with a 19-17 victory. Obviously, things have fallen off a cliff for Vick since, but if he can repeat that performance, it would go a long way toward helping his value on the open market.
Secondary Needs to Play Up to Its Potential
To put it bluntly, this Eagles squad has become the poster child for on-paper talent not translating to on-field success. Nowhere has that been more evident than in the secondary, where supposed stars Nnamdi Asomugha and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie have struggled through completely lost seasons.
In particular, Asomugha's descent has been disconcerting. Considered the best cover cornerback in all of football when he arrived in Philadelphia, the 31-year-old's performance has tailspinned to the point that him getting burned has become a running joke.
Obviously, the corners haven't gotten much help from safeties Nate Allen and Kurt Coleman. It's just that Philadelphia expected a lot more than a 28-8 touchdown-to-interception ratio and allowing the second-highest quarterback rating in the league when the season opened.
Eli Manning hasn't been himself of late, but the Super Bowl-winning quarterback may just come out firing with his team's season on the line. It'll be up to Asomugha and Rodgers-Cromartie to finally live up to their potential and stop the Giants on Sunday.
New York Giants
Early-Season Eli Must Show Up
Vick may be the most maligned quarterback taking snaps on Sunday, but Manning's one-year pass from criticism is about to wear out. The Super Bowl XLVI MVP's season started out on a high note much like the rest of his team, but Manning's performance has taken a nosedive down the stretch.
Just for reference, here is a breakdown of Manning's splits between the first and second half of 2012:
First Half: 62.6 PCT, 287.6 YPG, 12 TDs, 8 INT, 89.1 QB Rating
Second Half: 56.1 PCT, 205.6 YPG, 9 TDs, 7 INT, 76.3 QB Rating
Call me MacGyver, but methinks there's some relation between New York's descent from playoff contention to having an 8.5 percent chance of becoming a wild-card team. Over the past two weeks, Manning has been particularly dreadful, averaging a Christian Ponder-like 155.5 yards per game and throwing one touchdown against two interceptions.
The Giants will never win with Manning struggling that mightily—especially considering the constitution of their offense. This is a team built to pass the ball and mix in a solid ground game to keep the defense on its toes.
With the Eagles' secondary struggling, now seems as good a time as ever for the Manning of January and February to come back.
Someone on the Defensive Line Needs to Create Pressure
Remember the Giants' aforementioned struggles against the pass? Well, a great deal of those can be laid at the foot of New York's once-vaunted defensive line. Coming into Sunday, the Giants rank 19th in the NFL in with 32 sacks.
That comes after a string of two straight seasons finishing inside the top five. And it's not just one player having a down season. The Giants' leading sacks man is Jason Pierre-Paul with 6.5, which is a full 10 less than he had in 2011.
The numbers also bear out in advanced metrics. According to Football Outsiders' defensive line metrics, New York ranks 19th in adjusted sack rate and is the second-worst unit in the league against the run.
Even if Vick isn't the 2010 version of himself, the Giants won't win without generating pressure. Vick has become an adept passer when he gets time in the pocket and has always struggled mightily when facing pressure—especially from his blind side.
Simply put, New York needs to generate pressure or Coughlin's bunch will be hearing the boo birds walking out of MetLife Stadium on Sunday.