Running back Stephen Davis, the NFL's leading rusher, said yesterday he's increasingly optimistic he'll be able to play for the Washington Redskins on Sunday night at San Francisco. But as Davis rested his sprained left ankle, the Redskins began their preparations in earnest with Skip Hicks lined up at tailback during yesterday's practice at Redskin Park.

"I think he's got a chance," Redskins Coach Norv Turner said of the prospect of Davis playing against the 49ers. "But we're getting Skip ready to go. If Stephen plays, it will be a bonus."

Davis hurt his ankle during last Sunday's loss at Indianapolis. He has been undergoing treatments three times per day and said the ankle is improving. The Redskins hope to have a better idea about Davis's status on Friday, but probably will give him until Sunday to demonstrate whether he's able to play.

"Hopefully I can be closer to 100 percent by Friday," Davis said. "I want to play badly. It feels a whole lot better. I feel a lot more optimistic than I did Monday . . . If I have to wait until Sunday, I'll wait until Sunday."

Still, it seems unlikely Davis will play, and the Redskins are making plans to go with Hicks in a game in which a victory would clinch a spot in the NFC playoffs.

"We have all the confidence in the world Skip is going to come through," defensive end Marco Coleman said.

Hicks is not the same bulldozing runner that Davis is. With Hicks, the Redskins might use more pitchouts to try to get him to the perimeter of the defense. But the team's blockers said they don't intend to change their approach.

"I don't think we're going to change our game plan at all," guard Keith Sims said. "We don't make a single adjustment. It's up to Skip Hicks to find the holes. Stephen is more of a north-south runner. Skip likes to bounce outside a little more, but we're not going to change our whole offense."

Said offensive line coach Russ Grimm: "Skip has been in this offense before. There may be a few little wrinkles, but we're not going to make any major changes."

The Redskins actually could secure a postseason berth before they take the field Sunday. Losses by the Green Bay Packers, Carolina Panthers and either the Dallas Cowboys or New York Giants would clinch a postseason berth. But they're counting on having to win Sunday to secure the franchise's first playoff spot since the 1992 season.

"It's at our fingertips," tight end Stephen Alexander said. "We have to play well and get a win."

The game will be played against a once-so-great team that has a 4-10 record this season.

"We can't make mistakes," veteran running back and kick returner Brian Mitchell said. "The 49ers aren't playing that well this year, but they can beat us. One game gets us in, so we have to leave it all on the field."

If the Cowboys lose or tie on Friday at New Orleans, the Redskins could clinch the NFC East title with a victory Sunday, and they still are in the running for a bye in the first round of the playoffs.

"Our goal is not to just be in the playoffs," quarterback Brad Johnson said. "It's to advance in the playoffs and win the Super Bowl. If the goal is to just get in the playoffs, I don't want to be part of that. I think we have a shot at it."

Redskins Notes: Sims participated in practice yesterday and said he expects to play Sunday after missing four of the previous six games because of a sprained knee. "It feels good," he said. "I'm going to be there Sunday night." . . .

Reserve defensive end Ndukwe Kalu sat out yesterday's practice to rest a sprained foot, but Redskins officials said they expect the pass-rush specialist to play Sunday. . . . Davis said he plans to reward his blockers with gifts, but hasn't decided what yet. Fullback Larry Centers had a suggestion, saying: "Hopefully Stephen will do the right thing and take the whole offensive line with him to Hawaii" for the Pro Bowl.