Before the start of the season, this Week 14 matchup between the New Orleans Saints and New York Giants could have been billed as a possible NFC Championship preview.
However, recent struggles threaten to derail both team's playoff chances and the Saints and hosting Giants will both be looking for a much-needed win this Sunday.
Coming off their fourth Super Bowl championship, and second in five years, the Giants used a perfect October to seize control of the NFC East, but now lead the division by just one game over both the Washington Redskins and Dallas Cowboys thanks to three losses in four games.
The most recent prevented 7-5 New York from padding its lead atop the standings as it was dealt a 17-16 loss by the Washington Redskins on Monday night.
The Giants led 13-10 at the half and pushed that edge to six on Lawrence Tynes' 35-yard field goal with 3:09 left in the third quarter. However, New York's offense went cold from there and Washington went ahead for good on an eight-yard touchdown pass by Robert Griffin III early in the fourth frame.
Despite holding an advantage in total yards and time of possession, New York dropped the one-point decision in part because of nine penalties for 73 yards.
"I don't know what happened in the second half," Giants coach Tom Coughlin remarked. "We certainly didn't come out and play. Penalties and sloppy football. ... The real factor was, in the second half, we had a lot of difficulty stopping them and we didn't do anything with our opportunities."
Eli Manning threw for 280 yards with a four-yard touchdown pass to Martellus Bennett, who joined wide receivers Victor Cruz and Hakeem Nicks with five receptions in the game. Ahmad Bradshaw ran for 103 yards for the Giants, who did not commit a turnover for the second straight week.
"Right now we are 7-5 and in first place in our division," said Manning. "We have four games left. I like where we are right now. We just have to make sure we finish strong. That is what it is going to come down to. It starts this week with the Saints game. We are going against a good team and we have to make sure we are prepared to play good football."
However, the Giants host the Saints on a short week, while New Orleans has been out of action since a 23-13 loss to the Atlanta Falcons last Thursday. Turnovers doomed the Saints in that one as Drew Brees was intercepted a career-high five times.
Brees also had his NFL-record streak of 54 straight games with at least one touchdown pass snapped despite throwing for 341 yards.
"It's extremely disappointing," Brees said about the turnovers. "I pride myself on being a great decision maker and a guy that's going to help us win the game and not be a detriment by turning the ball over like that."
Mark Ingram ran for a score and Lance Moore had seven catches for 123 yards. Marques Colston added six receptions for 71 yards.
The loss was New Orleans' second in a row and dropped the club to 5-7 on the season. Looking to dig themselves out of an 0-4 start, the Saints had won three straight and five of six prior to the consecutive setbacks.
Though the Giants lead the all-time series 14-12, the Saints have won each of the last three meetings. That includes a 49-24 home win last season in which Brees passed for 363 yards with four touchdown throws while also running for a score. Moore and tight end Jimmy Graham had two TD receptions each.
Manning threw for 406 yards with two touchdowns, both to Cruz, who ended with nine receptions for 157 yards.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
The Giants know that they lost a game they should have won a week ago, and it was a division game to boot. New York is now 2-3 against its division and its lone NFC East matchup remaining is against Philadelphia to close the regular season on Dec. 30.
New York will hope that game isn't a must win, but will need to find a way to hold onto leads. The Giants have lost two of their last three games when holding the advantage in the fourth quarter and Monday's loss was their first in 27 regular-season road games when owning the lead at halftime.
"That's not something that our goal is," Coughlin said of giving up leads. "We did talk about finishing this game (Monday) night. We didn't win the fourth quarter. They had seven, we had none."
Manning has 17 touchdown passes to seven interceptions with 2,316 yards in his last eight home games, including playoffs, but this weekend he goes against a Saints defensive coordinator who knows him well in Steve Spagnuolo.
Spagnuolo served as the defensive coordinator for the Giants from 2007-08 before becoming the head coach of the St. Louis Rams and knows he is dealing with an elite quarterback this weekend.
"He is the kind of guy that doesn't get rattled," Spagnuolo said of Manning. "He sits big in the pocket. People will say he's not a scrambler, yet you can always find some plays in a game where he gets himself out of trouble, puts the ball downfield right on somebody and makes a big play. We have to be prepared for everything. I think our guys will be."
New Orleans ranks just 28th in scoring defense (27.2 ppg) and is yielding a league-worst 440.5 yards per game.
Defensive end Cameron Jordan leads the Saints with seven sacks and fellow end Will Smith has five. The duo will try to pressure Manning and force him into making mistakes in the hopes that the Saints can add to their total of eight interceptions on the season.
Manning said that the Giants have to be prepared for Spagnuolo to try and create pressure in a variety of ways.
"He does a good job of showing you different looks," noted Manning. "We have to be ready for a lot of different looks and some pressure things. They play a lot of coverage also so you have to be prepared for a lot of different looks. That's the challenge. If you can block up and have enough time for routes to develop we should be fine."
The Giants offensive line did take a hit on Monday when Sean Locklear suffered a season-ending knee injury in the fourth quarter. He was starting in place of David Diehl, who was dealing with a shoulder injury, and had made 10 starts this season.
New York did not have a sack versus Washington, but does come into the game ranked ninth against the pass. The Giants, especially defensive linemen Justin Tuck and Jason Pierre-Paul, will try to keep Brees in a funk and avoid letting him get comfortable.
Saints assistant head coach Joe Vitt said he expects Brees to put his last performance behind him quickly. The Saints will need their quarterback to resemble the playmaker who leads the NFL with 31 touchdown passes and is second with 3,674 yards.
Brees, though, is now tied for the NFL lead with 16 interceptions as well.
"In order to be a great quarterback like Drew Brees you need to have amnesia," said Vitt. "When you leave the stadium, you think about the next game and the next opportunity to go in and put this behind you."
This is a must-win game for the Saints and the Giants can't really afford another loss either, so a lot is on the line this weekend in New York.
The Giants have one less day to prepare for Brees and will hope that his struggles from last Thursday carry over. That could be worth all three wishes as Brees is 4-0 in his career versus the Giants with 11 touchdown passes without an interception.
"When Drew Brees lines up to play, he's playing to win. He's playing to make plays," said Vitt.
The Giants face the tough task of reversing that trend and will need to be sharp against a motivated Brees.
"It's always tough, and honestly, I like it that way," said Tuck. "I really like the fact that we don't have ... in the NFL you never have an easy game. I like the fact that we have to put our A-game in every game that we play from here on out."
New York seems to like making things tough on itself, but is playing with little wiggle room at this point. Perhaps last season's Super Bowl title is filling the Giants with too much confidence, but a big day from Brees would knock them down another peg.
Look for the rested Saints to pull off the upset in a shootout on Sunday behind a big performance by Brees and a repeat of the Giants' fourth-quarter issues.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Saints 34, Giants 30