Live from New York, these are the plots and subplots of the NFC wild-card game:

The quarterbacks are feuding in the newspapers. The New York Giants' best receiver is returning off injured reserve today. Two Giants had a fight this week at practice. There were reports of fistfights and car accidents when 3,500 playoff tickets went up for sale here. And, for followers of the Washington Redskins, Tory Nixon will start his first game.

Twice in the last four seasons, the San Francisco 49ers won the Super Bowl. Both times, they beat the Giants along the way.

They know each other well. They share the same 10-6 record. They have big names. Some have big egos.

After saying earlier in the week that Giants quarterback Phil Simms has "confidence bordering on cockiness," 49ers quarterback Joe Montana now says his comments were taken out of context.

"I'm very upset," Montana said today in the New York Daily News. "I'm smarter than that. Even if I believed that, I wouldn't say something like that this week. I wouldn't get them higher than they already are."

Earlier, Montana was quoted in the San Francisco Chronicle as saying, "Every time we play them our defense does a fairly good job and every time (Simms) says the same thing. 'We could have beaten you. If we had a little more time, I could have thrown the ball up and down the field anytime I wanted to.' I mean, for a guy our defense has played well against, he's got confidence bordering on cockiness."

Simms, who threw for a conference-leading 3,829 yards this season, is considered to have the temper of a street brawler. Montana, the top-rated passer in the NFC, has a "Joe Cool" reputation.

"People always say that," Simms said Friday. "But that's not to say Montana is as cool as he looks. He's emotional, even if he doesn't show it as much as I do."

This game is as much a duel of running backs as it is of the young and restless quarterbacks, considering the seasons New York's Joe Morris and San Francisco's Roger Craig have had. Morris led the league with 21 touchdowns; Craig became the first player in the NFL to gain 1,000 yards rushing and 1,000 yards receiving in a single season.

But that could change with the return of Lionel Manuel, the Giants' leading receiver, who missed the last four weeks on injured reserve with a pulled hamstring after catching 49 passes for 859 yards (a 17.5-yard average) and five touchdowns.

When Manuel was gone, Morris gained 542 yards and scored 10 touchdowns as the Giants moved to a ground attack.

Not that that's so bad. They became more balanced -- rushing for 2,451 yards, passing for a net of 3,433. Their total yards are second only to San Francisco's in the NFC.

"Nothing could be finer than to beat the 49ers," reads a bold, black sign on the Giants' locker room door.

The Giants are oh-for-the-'80s against San Francisco, losing all five games they've played. The 49ers, favored here by a field goal, have been the favorite in every game they've played since the 1983 NFC Championship game they lost to the Redskins at RFK Stadium. That game was the last postseason game the 49ers have played on the road.

Naturally, this game is big here, even if it means the winner has to go to Chicago next Sunday to play the 15-1 Bears.

New York tight end Vyto Kab, who was deactivated to make room for Manuel, and linebacker Carl Banks had a wrestling match at Thursday's practice. Some of the players blamed the fight on the cold weather.

The fans are just as intense. Montana, trying to call New York writers for a conference call, couldn't get through the switchboard when fans jammed it, asking for tickets.

One development of special interest in Washington is Nixon's start in place of injured right cornerback Eric Wright. Nixon, the Redskins' top draft pick this year, was traded to the 49ers in September after a disappointing preseason. He has been used only as a reserve and on special teams until this weekend.

"He's played very well when asked and it hasn't been a lot," said 49ers Coach Bill Walsh. "I think he'll do a credible job, but no question we'll have to protect him any way we can because the Giants have fast receivers and a great arm in Simms. Where it was an obvious strength, where we could count on Eric Wright shutting people out, now we've got a rookie out there."

Simms said he doesn't think the switch to Nixon matters very much because the 49ers play quite a bit of double-zone defense to protect their cornerbacks.

Then again, who knows if the quarterbacks mean what they say this week.