With a hand that gleams with three Super Bowl rings, it's easy for Roger Craig to wave away the ghosts.

So, no, he's not haunted by his infamous fumble the last time the 49ers faced the New York Giants in an NFC Championship game at Candlestick Park.

"It was never anything I worried about," Craig said by phone on Monday. "I had too many other great plays to worry about."

Craig's name is sure to come up this week, with the 49ers needing a victory over New York on Sunday to reach Super Bowl XLVI.

It was in such circumstances on Jan. 20, 1991, that the 49ers looked comfortably on their way to a victory over the Giants and an opportunity for unprecedented back-to-back-to-back Super Bowl titles.

They had a lead. They had the ball. The only thing left to do was grind out the clock.

But a funny thing happened on the way to a three-peat.

On a first-and-10 play from New York's 40-yard line, Craig took a handoff from Steve Young, who was filling in on the last series for an injured Joe Montana.

This was Craig's third consecutive carry. On the first play he gained 6 yards. On the second play he gained 5. And on the third play, a crowd of 65,750 gasped in horror.

Craig ran into the middle of the line, where Giants nose tackle Erik Howard, expecting an inside run, got his helmet on the ball and popped it loose for a fumble.

Lawrence Taylor pounced on it at the Giants' 43-yard line, giving New York another gasp with 2:36 remaining. A seven-play drive ended with Matt Bahr blasting a 43-yard field goal as time expired.

Final score: New York 15, 49ers 13.

That was the last time Craig ever carried the ball for the 49ers, ending a tenure worthy of Hall of Fame consideration.

The running back, now 51, said he never looks back and wonders what would have happened if only he had held on.

He said he has let it go.

"It's just one play," the four-time Pro Bowl player said. "That's part of the game. It wasn't meant to be. Joe (Montana) got hurt. The defense couldn't stop them. . . . There's never one play where you win or lose. You win and lose as a team."

Craig had to settle for three Super Bowl triumphs. He capped the '84 season by becoming the first player to score three touchdowns in a Super Bowl. The 49ers knocked off the Miami Dolphins 38-16.

In 1988, he was named the NFL Offensive Player of the Year after running for a career-high 1,502 yards. The 49ers went on to beat the Cincinnati Bengals 20-16 in Super Bowl XXIII.

In 1989, he had a combined 1,527 rushing and receiving yards in a season that culminated with a 55-10 victory over the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl XXIV.

In 1990 _ well, that was the season that ended with heartbreak. Craig remembers standing at his locker, patiently answering questions about the play that might have cost the 49ers a showdown against the Buffalo Bills.

"I was just never the type of guy who would back down and make excuses. The defense made a great play and won. That's the game," Craig said. "The only thing wish is that we would have had the opportunity to go on and win some more."

More than 20 years later, the 49ers get an NFC championship do-over against the Giants. And Craig, who remains closely connected to the current team, will be there. He said Jim Harbaugh's work as coach this season has echoes of Bill Walsh, who helped launch the 49ers dynasty in the 1980s.

"It's awesome to see what happens when players believe in their coach. And these guys will run through a brick wall for him," Craig said. "He makes everybody better. He's a great leader. He's a great innovator. He's just an unbelievable coach and teacher."

Craig, now the vice president of business development for Tibco Software, Inc., a company headquartered in Palo Alto, was in his company's Candlestick Park suite last week when Alex Smith led a comeback victory over the New Orleans Saints.

"It's great because now I can throw eggs at all of Alex's critics," Craig said. "That's a lot of eggs."

This marks the eighth time the 49ers will face the Giants in the postseason (San Francisco leads 4-3), and hearing the hype machine buzzing this week is evoking memories for Craig, for better or for worse.

"We had a great rivalry back then, and those were some hard-fought games. They didn't like us and we didn't like them," he said. "I think the Giants now are talking a little too much. I've been watching their interviews. They've been saying how much better they are now.

"Well, we're a lot better now, too. Trust me."