PHILADELPHIA -- Michael Vick will never pass this way again.
He is on the doorstep of doing something truly historic -- his first full season back from Leavenworth Prison and Vick is in position to write the final chapters of a storybook season. Selected to the Pro Bowl. Leading the Philadelphia Eagles to their first NFC East title in four years. A home playoff game.
That story line can never be duplicated. That's why there is so much at stake for Vick on Sunday.
If he fails to beat the Green Bay Packers in front of the home crowd, if he and the Eagles' offense fail like they did in Week 16 against the Minnesota Vikings, there will be a palpable sense of unfinished business.
Vick knows that. That's why he was so adamant this week: "Do your job," he said, "or we go home."
A loss Sunday means the Vick redemption story that captured the nation -- and even got the official White House seal of approval -- will end where it began, with more questions than answers about Vick's long-term viability as a championship-level franchise quarterback. A loss Sunday, and the dream season dies. And next season, Vick is just another 31-year-old quarterback looking for a new contract and another shot at a title. He will be asked different questions. Different assessments will be made, different expectations created.
His pyrotechnics, his shock-and-awe football, have held highlight reels hostage all season. But now he needs to put boots on the ground, he needs to survive and advance in the postseason.
Vick knows all this. You can sense it. He hears the whispers -- that defenses are catching up to him, just like they did in the past. And he doesn't like what he hears.
But Vick knows he and his team cannot get knocked out in the first round. He cannot be one and done -- not after the meltdown against the Vikings raised serious questions about whether he is regressing, beginning to look like he did when he played in Atlanta, failing to read the blitz, turning the ball over too much, taking too many sacks.
A loss Sunday that can be directly traced to his performance and Vick also stands to lose a lot of potential earnings. He is a free agent in 2011. He wants a lucrative long-term contract from the Eagles that will pay him north of $20 million guaranteed.
A home playoff loss to the Packers almost certainly will weaken his bargaining position.
Vick has seen this movie before. His career already died once -- from, by his own admission, poor practice and study habits and that horrible life of animal cruelty that landed him in federal prison.
By all accounts, after doing time, he's been putting in the time -- and the numbers this season reflected it: He's 8-3 as a starter and owns a passer rating in Tom Brady's neighborhood. That's why he's the potential NFC starter in the Pro Bowl, why he was -- briefly -- a candidate for league MVP.
But making the playoffs makes for a nice little story. Getting to the Super Bowl in Arlington, Texas, makes everybody pay attention.
"We all know what's at stake," Vick said. So, he knows -- and he knows if he gets to the Super Bowl, he gets paid. He'll get big money, not the franchise tag the Eagles almost certainly will apply if they can't get a deal done. A trip to the Super Bowl means the Eagles have to pay up, and the endorsement deals will follow.
But first things first: Don't lose to the Packers on Sunday.
Sal Paolantonio, the author of How Football Explains America, covers the NFL for ESPN.