EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — The lives of Michael Vick and Eli Manning were on very different paths in December 2007.
Vick was being sentenced in federal court to 23 months in prison for his involvement in a dogfighting ring. Manning was putting the New York Giants in gear for a run that would culminate in a stunning victory over the undefeated New England Patriots and a Super Bowl MVP award.
Three years later, the two former No. 1 overall draft picks will be the focal points when Vick and the Philadelphia Eagles (9-4) face Manning and the Giants (9-4) in a showdown Sunday for first place in the NFC East.
"We all know the magnitude of the game," Vick said. "We know it's a big one. Where else would you want to be? What other position would you want to be in? (We're) playing against a good team, so we're going to have to be at our best. We're going to need each and every day this week, as far as our preparation and getting to play a good football game. Come Sunday, it's going to have to be lights out on both sides."
If the Eagles win, it will give them a sweep of the two-game series with the Giants and all but clinch the division title.
A Giants win makes the final two weeks more interesting. New York closes with road games at Green Bay (8-5) and Washington (5-8). The Eagles have home games against Minnesota (5-8) and Dallas (4-9), two of the league's most disappointing teams this season.
"This is what this league is all about, playing big games in December," Giants linebacker Keith Bulluck said. "This is fun."
While defenses tend to decide games, all eyes are going to be on Vick and Manning.
Surprisingly, Vick is the one having the MVP-type season, and Manning is the question mark.
After starting the season as Kevin Kolb's backup, Vick has taken over as the starter in what is turning out to be a career season. He has thrown for 2,513 yards, 17 touchdowns and four interceptions and added another seven TDs rushing. His 104.3 quarterback rating is tops in the NFC and second overall to New England's Tom Brady.
The top pick in 2001 seemingly has also settled his personal life, and is even talking about owning a dog again.
Manning, who will be making his 101st consecutive start, has been the shaky one. The No. 1 pick overall in 2004 has thrown for 3,169 yards and 24 touchdown passes. He also has tossed a league-high 19 interceptions, including three in a 27-17 loss at Philadelphia on Nov. 21.
"These are the situations you want to be in," Manning said. "You want to be playing in these types of games in December, and we have to be excited. We have to have a great week of practice and get prepared. We know these guys, so a lot of it just comes down to Sunday and being prepared for all their looks and going out there and playing smart football."
The Giants haven't played either smart or well against the Eagles over the past two years. In the losing to them for the fifth straight time last month, New York turned over the ball five times.
Still, they had a chance to win. They had a 17-16 lead with less than 5 minutes to go when LeSean McCoy took a pitch from Vick after he bobbled the snap on a fourth-and-1 gamble and scored on a 50-yard run.
New York had a chance to tie, but Manning lost a fumble when he dived for a first down instead of sliding.
Giants running back Brendan Jacobs said the turnovers have been the difference against Philadelphia.
"There is no doubt in our minds," Jacobs said. "This a different team. When we aren't turning the ball over and have no penalties, we can beat anyone. This is a good football team we are playing against and if you give them an edge they are going to take advantage of it."
With Vick running the show, the Eagles have developed into the most potent offense (measured by yards) in the league. DeSean Jackson and Jeremy Maclin provide deep threats and McCoy can not only run, but his 70 receptions lead all running backs.
Philadelphia limited the Giants to 208 yards in total offense in the last meeting, holding the running game to 61 yards on 19 carries.
"They shut us down," Giants guard Chris Snee said. "They won that battle, that's why they won the game. We have to do a much better job and that way we keep Vick off the field."
Since losing to Philadelphia, the Giants have reeled off three straight wins. The constant in that spurt has been the running game. Jacobs replaced fumble-prone Ahmad Bradshaw as the starter and the line has gotten its act together, with left tackle David Diehl returning to the lineup in Monday night's 21-3 win over Minnesota in Detroit.
New York has rushed for 197 and 213 yards in the last two games, with Jacobs and Bradshaw both covering over 100 yards last week.
The Eagles are also going to have a major change in the middle of their defense: Middle linebacker Stewart Bradley is out with a dislocated right elbow and rookie Jamar Chaney will replace him.
"Their run game is pretty ridiculous," Eagles defensive end Darryl Tapp said. "They have two capable backs. So that's really something we have to focus on, but you really can't shy away from playing defense as far as the pass goes. Even though they didn't have their starters playing the last few weeks, you don't know when those guys are coming back. And you know the guys that they signed, they signed for a reason. They get the job done, too."
New York has its own injury problem. Steve Smith, who set a team-record with 107 catches last season, hurt his left knee Monday night and he is scheduled to have season-ending surgery.
Hakeem Nicks and Mario Manningham will start, but Manningham hurt his hip against the Vikings and his status will probably be decided before the game. Derek Hagan and tight end Kevin Boss will be asked to pick up the slack.Comment on this story
The key for the Giants will be containing Vick. New York limited him to 258 yards passing and no touchdowns in the first meeting, holding the Eagles to one touchdown and four field goals in five red zone trips.
New York's defense did an outstanding job of forcing Vick to roll to his right, making the left-hander throw across his body.
"Even then he makes plays," Giants defensive end Justin Tuck said. "With a guy like Vick you have to get lucky, and a lot of luck comes from playing hard, and that's what we are going to do."
Expect the same from Vick. He spent 1½ years in prison waiting for a chance to get back on the field and win again.