Week 15 sees two under-achieving teams coming together under two completely different circumstances.

New Orleans has long been considered a throwaway for 2012 because head coach Sean Payton sort of poisoned the well with his selection of replacement coaches. The Saints have struggled almost all season, but last week they absolutely destroyed division rival Tampa Bay 41-0.

That’s how the season has gone for the Saints. Some weeks they look like a beastly squad, while other weeks they look like a junior-league football team. A Canadian Football League dropout, if you will. With currently-suspended head coach Payton officially not under contract with the Saints (due to a provision that kind of predicted the bounty scandal), this game has an air of intrigue to it as people are beginning to wonder whether or not Payton will return to New Orleans at all.

Payton has the privileged position of being a recent Super Bowl winner who will be on the market soon. Saints owner Tom Benson has publicly stated that he will do just about anything to bring Payton back, but Jerry Jones has a lot of money… and the Cowboys aren’t just an attractive destination for any coach, but Payton happens to have a good repoire with Jones. He was Bill Parcells’ offensive coordinator before leaving for the Saints job in 2005.

It’s anyone’s best guess what the Saints are playing for, but the Cowboys are trying their hardest not to completely collapse in December like they seem to do every year. There’s a 3-way tie in the NFC East with the Redskins on the top. The Cowboys have split their season series with the Giants, and their last game of the season is against Washington, so the Cowboys sort of control their own destiny, though it’s a tad more dubious.

How can the Cowboys win? The same way they can always win. Involve both talented wideouts Miles Austin and Dez Bryant enough to offset their dependence on Jason Witten. Tony Romo needs to keep the mistakes to a minimum (really, just make sure they don’t happen at the worst time). Rob Ryan’s defense has to contain the always-dangerous New Orleans passing attack “enough” to allow alleviate pressure on the Dallas offense.

It’s never been complicated with Dallas this season, it’s just been a matter of execution. Really though, has it been any different for them over the last five years?

This game could very well turn out to be the “Sean Payton Bowl” as it’s precisely these two teams that are at the forefront of the discussion on Payton’s future.

Expect the Saints to press the Cowboys and force them to make mistakes. It’s rare that these Cowboys get handily defeated. Usually, it comes at their own hands with an interception at the end or a false start on 3rd & 8. Last year the Saints ruled the world on turnovers, and they haven’t been even close to a shell of their former selves, but they probably hate the Cowboys as much as any other team outside the NFC East, and they’ve had a lot to prove all year long.

The Cowboys have a way of completely crumbling in moments like this and I know all of the talk over the last two weeks has been how gutsy they have looked, but let’s not forget that the only reason they pulled off that victory against Pittsburgh last Sunday was because of Ben Roethlisberger’s overtime pick in the early minutes. Brandon Carr intercepted it and ran it back enough for the Cowboys to limp off the field with a winning field goal.

This game’s outcome, like so many others, will depend almost entirely on how the Cowboys play. If they play well then they have a very good shot to win and keep their playoffs hopes alive. If they make crucial mistakes then they’ll lose what is essentially a throwaway game for the Saints, who are completely eliminated from the postseason.

Both the Redskins and the Giants play the Eagles once more this season (the ‘Skins play them today while New York plays them next week as Dallas finishes the season on the road in Washington). The hectic scheduling has resulted in a nail-biting final two weeks for teams in the NFC East.

Regardless of either outcome, the story of the day will be Sean Payton. After all, the more the Cowboys win the less likely Jones fires Jason Garrett to pursue Payton… and the more the Saints lose the more Payton might consider leaving the franchise for good (he’s currently coaching his son’s 6th grade football team in Dallas, where his children live with his wife).

Did you catch that? Payton has roots in Dallas, and he has coached for Dallas before, and he has a good relationship with Jerry Jones (not an easy thing to do). With this in mind, look for the Saints to light up the Cowboys if cornerbacks Carr and Morris Claiborne aren’t up to the challenge.

It should be an old-fashioned shootout with Brees and Romo trying to outgun each other in the Superdome.

Where To Watch Online: New Orleans Saints vs. Dallas Cowboys