SANTA CLARA, CALIF., JAN. 17 -- Depth, as much as talent, is key to the San Francisco 49ers' success. They have the unique ability to switch featured players the way viewers change TV channels.

When teams keyed on running back Roger Craig, San Francisco made fullback Tom Rathman a weapon. As Rathman's pass receptions fell this year, tight end Brent Jones's catches skyrocketed to where he is the team's second leading receiver behind Jerry Rice. Which brings us to the next possible 49ers weapon: Mike Sherrard.

He has been called one of the most talented wide receivers in the NFL with the most rotten luck. But it appears his string of bad breaks -- literally, he has broken his leg three times -- has ended. The New York Giants will have to worry about Sherrard and the 49ers in the NFC championship game on Sunday at Candlestick Park.

"I'm pretty satisfied with how things are going right now," he said recently. "But what has happened to me is in the back of my mind. I'm not going to think too much about the past, I have too much to look forward to."

Before looking at what could be for Sherrard -- a future that is indeed quite bright -- look at what he has overcome.

Sherrard has broken his right leg three times since 1987, most recently Oct. 28 against Cleveland. When with Dallas he broke it in '87 and '88.

Sherrard's injury streak forced the Cowboys to give up on their 1986 No. 1 pick (ironically, acquired in a trade with the 49ers), even though they knew that someday he still could prove to be special. The 49ers, being talent-laden and wealthy, could afford to be more patient, so they signed him as a Plan B free agent in 1989. That decision could pay dividends.

For the playoff game against the Redskins last week, 49ers assistant coaches said privately that Sherrard, activated the day before the game, would be a decoy.

But the 49ers began to notice some things on the field. They saw how Sherrard was running his routes with fresh precision. They saw that the speed is still there. They saw confidence.

Then, like the Redskins, they saw a touchdown catch by Sherrard, an amazing feat considering he spent almost more time in a cast this season than on the field. Sherrard caught an eight-yard pass from Joe Montana, giving San Francisco an 11-point lead. He was back.

"To chase me all the way across the field with no help is tough," Sherrard said. " . . . I played just enough."

"Considering that Mike Sherrard hadn't played since October against Cleveland he did an excellent job," said 49ers Coach George Seifert. "He caught the ball with sure handedness and was bouncing up after being tackled."

Said backup quarterback Steve Young: "Mike has all the great qualities that John {Taylor} and Jerry have -- that they're great athletes. If he can stay healthy he's going to be great. You can tell.

"Psychologically it must be tough to do what he did, coming back from all of those broken legs. But he seems relentless with his attitude and so if there's a chance for him to stay healthy, he's going to help us a lot."

Sherrard adds depth to 49ers' arsenal. Consider: In the first meeting between the Redskins and 49ers on Sept. 16, Taylor caught eight passes for 160 yards. In the second half of last week's game he was shut out. It was Sherrard who had the touchdown catch.

Sherrard is a combination of Rice and Taylor: He has the grace and breakaway speed of Rice and the strength of Taylor. Imagine how the trio could spread a defense?

"He just gives a team one more thing to worry about," said Giants cornerback Everson Walls. "I think he's a talented guy and he has good hands. He's someone we'll have to stop."