SANTA CLARA, CALIF., JAN. 19 -- While the San Francisco 49ers and New York Giants do battle at Candlestick Park on Sunday to determine the NFC champion, outside there likely will be thousands of people protesting the United States's involvement in the Persian Gulf War.

The San Francisco Police Department is expecting from 20,000 to 40,000 people to hold a peaceful demonstration before and during the game, scheduled for 4 p.m. EST. Police said organizers were discussing the possible rally at a large peace demonstration in downtown San Francisco today.

"They passed around flyers and were organizing" a rally, said San Francisco police officer Mary Lowman, who works in the operations department. "I think it has the potential to be a big one, that's all I know."

The war has tempered the excitement about the game, with some players finding it difficult to concentrate. Others have barely been able to temporarily focus strictly on football.

As for the game, it could be one of the best of the NFL season. The winner advances to Super Bowl XXV to face either the Buffalo Bills or the Los Angeles Raiders on Jan. 27 in Tampa.

Said cornerback Everson Walls, who led the 14-3 Giants with six interceptions: "We're very confident, simply because the way {our} defense played the last time. . . . We feel it's our time. Just talking to the guys, I feel the time is right. It's obvious to me anyway."

"I would think they would be coming into this game with a great deal of confidence," said 49ers linebacker Matt Millen. "Because last time we played they had some success against us."

The last time was San Francisco's 7-3 victory at Candlestick on Dec. 3, the lowest scoring game in the NFL this season.

To get an idea of how these two teams respect and dislike each other, consider this: San Francisco nose tackle Jim Burt, the former Giant, admitted on Friday that he instigated the Dec. 3 postgame fracas between Giants quarterback Phil Simms and 49ers safety Ronnie Lott.

"I'm not going to sit here and lie," said Burt. "I told Ronnie the mind-set that Phil might have. I rode to the game with him and spoke to him about that. I didn't say anything that wasn't truthful. I basically told him that Phil thought he could throw the ball on him, and he's thought that all these years."

And Burt said he will do the same thing with another San Francisco player between now and game time. Such are the feelings and emotions between these teams. The Giants and 49ers are familiar foes, meeting three times in the playoffs since 1984, and six times in the regular season.

There will be differences in these teams since their earlier meeting. For one, quarterback Joe Montana will not be at full strength. He didn't participate in practice today for the second straight day because of a flu virus he caught from his family. San Francisco Coach George Seifert said Montana visited with team doctors this morning and that Montana says he "is good. He's better."

But make no mistake: Unless the 49ers aren't telling the truth about what's wrong with Montana, who was again unavailable for comment, he will play.

"Obviously you like to have all of your players at practice," Seifert said. "But he's worked enough with the game plan and is familiar enough with the plays. . . . I don't foresee him missing the last two days of practice as a problem, but you never know.

"There is not a great deal of anxiety about it."

For the Giants, Simms will be watching in street clothes because of a fractured foot. In his place will more nimble Jeff Hostetler, who is starting in only his second playoff game.

Even with a healthy Simms, one of the top quarterbacks in the league, the Giants weren't able to generate much offense in the teams' earlier meeting.

But Hostetler gives New York a new and potentially dangerous dimension. He can run and run well. In the NFC divisional playoff game against Chicago, Hostetler rushed for 43 yards on six carries, including two crucial scrambles on fourth down and a touchdown.

"I don't plan on running," Hostetler said. "Our team doesn't plan on me running. It's just one of those things that happens. I'm sure {the 49ers} will practice for that situation."

San Francisco is genuinely worried about Hostetler's running ability. Seifert said there is "always the possibility" that the 49ers would use a player as a "spy" or "cop" to shadow Hostetler. Where he goes, that 49ers defender would follow.

"They'll incorporate a lot of the things {Hostetler} does in terms of rollouts and some of the things he does," Millen said. "You would think they have to keep the {offense} simplified somewhat, because he certainly doesn't have all the experience that Simms has in reading all the defenses.

"I think more than getting to him early and disrupting him, the key will be if he has success early, regardless of if we get to him. If you sack him three times and he comes back with two long bombs, or is able to read good coverage, then he'll be more confident if he misses and we don't get to him."

The significance of this game goes beyond the obvious reward of a trip to the Super Bowl in sunny Tampa. For the 49ers, it is one step closer to winning three consecutive NFL championships. The Giants would love to knock San Francisco off the pedestal and replace them with their own busts.

"I feel it's my obligation not to let these guys threepeat," said Giants nose tackle Erik Howard, who grew up in San Jose, only a short drive from the 49ers' training complex.

"It's like they're walking six inches above the rest of us. Their feet never touch the ground. You hear all the hype and commercials on the radio."

Said Montana earlier this week: "We're very close to a dream basically. Something we can look on basically after we're out of this game. That's exciting enough, let alone this is just an opportunity to go to the Super Bowl. That's enough to be excited about in itself. But going for that third straight Super Bowl . . . it's definitely a factor."

And quite possibly is a nasty little flu bug.