Redskins hope to unwrap playoff 'gift' Can clinch berth by beating Patriots


FOXBORO, Mass. -- The National Football League is presenting a Christmas shopper's special today.

The fans who want to watch the game between the Buffalo Bills and the New York Giants at 12:30 p.m. should be able to skip the 4 p.m. game between the Washington Redskins and the New England Patriots and get in some Christmas shopping.

That's because the Redskins-Patriots game is viewing recommended only for the most devoted Redskins fans.

Finding the Patriots under their tree is likely to be an extra Christmas present for the Redskins.

The 8-5 Redskins couldn't find an easier way to clinch their first playoff berth in three years.

The Patriots are 1-12, have lost 11 straight and have been outscored, 95-24, in their last three games.

All that, though, doesn't stop Redskins coach Joe Gibbs from worrying. He always worries.

"We're going to have to play our absolute best is the way I look at it," he said. "We've got everything riding on it, two years of work riding on this game. We're going to have to play great."

It's easy to brush off Gibbs' comments as blowing smoke, except that he's quick to bring up the Dallas Cowboys.

If Humphrey Bogart always had Paris in "Casablanca," Gibbs always will have Dallas.

"I relate to Dallas," he said.

A year ago, the Cowboys upset the Redskins for their only victory in a 1-15 season. Obviously, the Redskins didn't take the Cowboys seriously enough.

Gibbs is worried it could happen again.

"I think Dallas was a lot farther behind where New England is, and they came into RFK and beat us soundly," he said. "I think you've always got to figure you're going to get the best shot from somebody."

But the Dallas comparison isn't really appropriate because Dallas was in the first year of a massive rebuilding program a year ago.

The Cowboys, at least, knew who was running the team -- owner Jerry Jones and coach Jimmy Johnson.

In New England, nobody knows for sure what the future holds.

The team seemingly has not recovered from the Lisa Olson sexual harassment incident and is now engulfed in rumors about the future.

Sam Jankovich, the University of Miami athletic director, has been approached about taking over the club by representatives of Patriots owner Victor Kiam.

Boston writers have even tossed the names of Gibbs and New York Giants coach Bill Parcells into the hopper as general manager candidates.

It's probably not a coincidence that Gibbs and Parcells are clients of agent Robert Fraley, who likes to get his clients mentioned as candidates for job openings, to increase their bargaining power. Parcells' contract expires in another year, and reports are that Gibbs' contract expires on Feb. 1, but he won't confirm that.

Neither Gibbs nor Parcells has shown any interest in getting involved in this mess, though.

Patriots GM Patrick Sullivan, who is likely to be swept out, is busy insisting that the sorry situation is not all his fault.

"I've reached the point where it is now unacceptable to be classified as a scapegoat for everything that has gone wrong this year," he said. "I'm at the stage where my whole career is being judged on the basis of this one year, and it's unacceptable to me because it's not a reflection of my entire life."

Sullivan said it's an "organizational responsibility" and added, "If people can't stand up and stand together, then clearly you have major problems."

This is the chaotic atmosphere that the Patriots will be in when the Redskins enter Foxboro Stadium today. It would be easy for Washington to sleepwalk through the game.

But the Redskins have spent the week insisting that they won't have a letdown.

"We know better than to walk into a stadium and not be mentally ready for a dogfight," said defensive lineman Darryl Grant. "We have to go into the game with the same intensity as last week, the same purpose. We know what's at stake."

Quarterback Mark Rypien said, "We'd be silly to let this pass by and not give our best effort."

Said safety Todd Bowles: "We're playing to get in the playoffs. It's a big game."

That's the way the Redskins talked all week. Whether they believe it themselves is another matter.

It may not even matter if the Redskins play far from their best.

As Sullivan said of the Patriots, "A lot of players here were on winning teams and they've forgotten how to win."

The Redskins hope the Patriots don't remember today.

Redskins-Patriots today

Site: Foxboro (Mass.) Stadium. Time: 4 p.m.

TV: Channels 11, 9

Radio: WCAO (600 AM), WMAL (630 AM)

Line: Redskins by 13

Last week: The Redskins edged the Bears, 10-9, and the Patriots lost to the Steelers, 24-3.

Last meeting: This is the first regular-season meeting between the two teams in six seasons since the Redskins beat the Patriots, 26-10, in 1984 when John Riggins ran for 140 yards.

The series: These two teams have met just four times, with the Redskins holding a 3-1 edge.

On the sidelines: Coach Joe Gibbs, in his 10th season, has a 110-53 record with the Redskins. Rod Rust, in his first season as Patriots head coach, is 1-12.

What the Redskins have to do to win: Stay interested in the game. The only way the Redskins can lose this one is by losing their concentration.

What Patriots have to do to win: To pull off the biggest upset of the season, the Patriots would have to take advantage of Washington mistakes and come up with turnovers.

Injuries: Redskins: G Russ Grimm (shoulder), LB Wilber Marshall (hip) are probable. Patriots: LB Vincent Brown (ankle), T Stan Clayton (ankle), QB Tom Hodson (broken finger-right hand) are questionable; T Bruce Armstrong (ankle), LB Ilia Jarostchuk (hand), LB Ed Reynolds (ankle) are probable.

Outlook: The Redskins should be able to name the score in this game because the Patriots are coping with so much turmoil. But the Redskins have a reputation for playing down to the level of their competition.

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