SAN FRANCISCO, DEC. 2 -- Two of the biggest impact players in the NFL aren't making such an impact this season. New York Giants linebacker Lawrence Taylor has admitted that he, like everyone, is slowing with age. And Roger Craig hasn't been his normal high-stepping self because of a severe knee injury. Lately, the San Francisco running back has been the most talented decoy in the free world.

Monday night in the The Game That Almost Was, the Giants face the 49ers at Candlestick Park. Both teams are 10-1 with the inside track to home-field advantage in the playoffs at stake and threat of a losing streak looming. It is sure to be one of the season's most hard-fought and eye-pleasing games.

And there will be a mini-battle of sorts: Taylor and Craig will be fighting themselves. This is their chance, they said, to evoke memories of those special gifts that have been largely absent this year. It's a big game, the setting where Taylor and Craig usually flourish.

"I'm ready to have a big game," said Craig. "And this is about as big a game as you can get before the playoffs. I'm ready."

Predicted Taylor: "We're going to win a really big win."

Taylor hasn't had a sack since Nov. 18 against Detroit, and that was his first solo sack since the beginning of the season. He has six this season, an average of .5 per game. Against the Philadelphia Eagles -- the team Taylor hates to lose to the most -- he had one tackle and one assist.

He has struggled -- partly because he is human. But even at 31, Taylor is a dangerous man, which gives credibility to his complaints last week that he is used more as a lineman than linebacker.

"I'm not happy with my role right now," Taylor said. "I'm not allowed to freelance as much as I used to. It's frustrating."

Part of the diminished pass rush is because of the absence of the Giants' other superb outside linebacker, Carl Banks, who has missed the last six weeks with a dislocated left wrist. Banks is expected to return Monday night.

"We're not getting to the quarterback," said Giants Coach Bill Parcells. "What do you want me to say? Am I concerned about it? Yes. Do we have to do better with it? Yes."

And Taylor hopes to. In fact, hearing him talk, he intends to.

"I don't see any way we should lose," Taylor said. "It's the same feeling I had last week {against the Eagles}, when I couldn't see us winning. We just didn't do the right things. It's one of those feelings you get every now and then. You only get that feeling two or three times a year. We're going to win."

Craig made no such boasts, but he is confident that things can turn around for him with this game. And with it, quite possibly, the 49ers' running game.

He can blame torn ligaments for most of his problems. He has spent most of his playing career at about 220 pounds but reported to camp at 205 and suffered the knee injury that sidelined him for three games. He hasn't been the same since. Craig averaged 1,068 yards and seven touchdowns in his three Super Bowl seasons. Now he is gaining a mere 28 yards per game, averaging three yards per attempt and scoring every 10 weeks.

Quarterback Joe Montana has San Francisco's longest run this season (20 yards) and the best per-carry average among the starting backfield (3.6). Also, against Dallas on Nov. 11, Craig was brought down on 14 of 16 carries by the first defender. He usually steps through the first would-be tackler, sometimes carrying defenders on his back.

And as Craig has suffered, so has the team's ground game. Forty-two percent of its plays have been runs.. In 1988 and 1989 the statistics weren't so lopsided, with 48 percent of the offensive snaps rushing plays.

"We need to try to get the balance going," said Craig. "I've been hurt this season, so it's been difficult for me to get into the flow. . . . Of course I would like to play every play. That's my motto. I'm a durable back. But you do what's best for the team, not just Roger Craig.

"The only thing I get frustrated about is the negative things people said about me when I was hurt, saying that maybe I would never be the same {because of the injury}. Criticize me when I'm healthy. Don't criticize me when I'm hurt. . . . I'm never going to heal completely. But I think my rhythm is coming back. I think right now I'm about 95 to 99 percent."

Should Craig not return to form this season, some people wonder if San Francisco could win another Super Bowl.

"It's a good question," said 49ers Coach George Seifert. "Sure, we could win a championship and be not much of a better running team, but it would sure make it a hell of a lot easier if we did run the ball more effectively."

Said former 49ers coach Bill Walsh: "I think they can win another title without being as balanced as they have been in the past. The passing game is so great that it in itself is overcoming the shortcomings of the 49ers right now. But the 49ers should be very concerned right now."