By Simon Evans
(Reuters) - The final week of the National Football League (NFL) regular season takes place on New Year's Day with seven teams battling for the last three available spots in the playoffs and another four hoping to earn a week off on the road to the Super Bowl.
Nine of the 12 playoff berths have already been snapped up but the fight for the remaining three spots will go right down to the wire with the New York Giants (8-7) and Dallas Cowboys (8-7) clashing in Sunday's featured night game at the new Meadowlands Stadium.
The stakes could hardly be higher for a regular season game with the winner advancing to the playoffs as the NFC East division winner and fourth seed, while the loser will miss the postseason altogether.
"The guys are ready. We understand what's at stake," Giants quarterback Eli Manning told reporters.
The other five NFC spots have already been claimed with the Green Bay Packers (14-1), the defending Super Bowl champions, assured of home field advantage during the playoffs.
The San Francisco 49ers (12-3) can lock up a first week bye if they beat St Louis but New Orleans Saints (12-3) could snatch it if they beat the Carolina Panthers and the 49ers slip up.
In the AFC, five teams remain in contention for the two available playoff spots.
The Denver Broncos and Oakland Raiders are vying for the AFC West division title. The Broncos (8-7) will book their place as the fourth seeds if they beat the Kansas City Chiefs but would miss out altogether if they lost and the Raiders (8-7) defeated San Diego.
The Raiders are also one of four teams battling for the final AFC Wild Card, along with the Cincinnati Bengals (9-6), Tennessee Titans (8-7) and New York Jets (8-7).
The New England Patriots (12-3) have already locked up a first week bye, leaving the Baltimore Ravens (11-4) and the Pittsburgh Steelers (11-4), last season's AFC Super Bowl runners-up, competing for the other free pass into the second week.
But the main focus for the last week will be on the heavyweight clash between the Giants and Cowboys. The Giants have won five of the past seven meetings between the teams, including a 37-34 win in Texas earlier this month.
That was a traumatic loss for the Cowboys with New York scoring 15 points in the final three and a half minutes and Dallas having a potentially game tying field goal attempt in the final seconds blocked by Giants defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul.
Giants coach Tom Coughlin warned against expecting another high-scoring game on Sunday but agreed it had the makings of another classic.
"You have outstanding talent on both sides of the ball so you can expect that things will happen," he said. "It will come down to who is the most physical and who makes the fewest errors."
The Cowboys suffered a scare over their quarterback Tony Romo, who picked up a hand injury in last week's defeat to the Philadelphia Eagles, but he was back in practice this week and expected to play.
There is little love lost between the two sets of players, with Giants defensive end Justin Tuck talking again this week of how he 'hates' the Cowboys.
"That's what this rivalry is about, guys are going to get chirpy, talk and say thing out of their neck," Dallas defensive end Marcus Spears said.
"I hope that my team mates understand that we just need to stay quiet and go about our business and get a win. In the end, talking doesn't win games."
(Editing by Julian Linden)