Skins cautiously peer from top spot


WASHINGTON -- Somewhere off in the distance, Rome was burning. The New York Giants had lost for the second straight week. Here in the nation's capital, where the Washington Redskins won for the third straight week, there would be no fiddling, though.

All you got from Washington coach Joe Gibbs was a straight face and a set jaw.

"We've got to have a good approach to three wins," Gibbs said yesterday after the Redskins raked their favorite patsy, the Phoenix Cardinals, 34-0, at RFK Stadium.

"That's all it is. Nothing more. It's been a long time since we've been a game up on anybody."

In the rough-and-tumble NFC East, the 3-0 Redskins are on top. They are one game ahead of Phoenix and Philadelphia, two ahead of New York and Dallas. The defending Super Bowl champion Giants, who the Redskins have chased for most of the last three years, fell to 1-2 with a 20-17 loss in Chicago.

Forget that the Cardinals came into Week 3 of the NFL season unbeaten and leading the league in takeaways. Yesterday they lost the battle of turnovers, 4-2, and wilted like a week-old petunia in the heavy air of RFK.

Nothing new there. The Cardinals have lost six in a row to the Redskins, 13 of the last 14, 28 of the last 33. They haven't won at RFK since 1971.

Afterward, Joe Bugel, the Phoenix coach and transplanted Redskins assistant, issued this warning:

"I don't think too many defenses will stop their offense. We're not a bad football team. They are just very good."

In the Redskins' locker room, players walked gingerly around their 3-0 start. But quarterback Mark Rypien, a five-year veteran, admitted that they are "playing as good a football as we have since I've been here."

Against Phoenix, the Redskins indeed looked unstoppable. The defense made three big interceptions against an overmatched Tom Tupa and recorded its second shutout of the season. The offense followed the early lead of running back Earnest Byner, who, on his 29th birthday, piled up 98 total yards in the first quarter alone. He finished with 109 yards and one touchdown rushing, 51 yards receiving and a dinner date with his wife, Tina.

"My wife wanted me to dress up today. Usually I dress down," the nattily-attired Byner said after undressing the Cardinals.

It was a topsy-turvy kind of game for the Redskins. It had linebacker Wilber Marshall looking more like an option quarterback when he intercepted a Cardinals pass and eluded a Phoenix defender with a fake lateral en route to a 54-yard touchdown. And it had Rypien playing the improbable role of lead blocker on a 10-yard touchdown run by wide receiver Ricky Sanders.

Rypien had handed off to Byner, who then handed the ball to Sanders on an end-around just two plays into the second quarter. Sanders skittered through the defense untouched, and at the goal line Rypien hurled his 6-foot-4 frame at cornerback Lorenzo Lynch. With that moment's pause, Lynch dove at Sanders but missed.

"It wasn't a stellar block," said Rypien, who fared better as a passer: 15-for-23 for 181 yards, including a 28-yard touchdown to Gary Clark. "It was kind of a body presence. I was the lead man in that situation and there was one man left."

Gibbs, who is picky about his quarterbacks, likes what he has seen of Rypien the last three weeks.

"He is asserting himself out there," Gibbs said. "He comes to the sidelines now with some real positive ideas. I like that in a quarterback."

Gibbs also likes an offense that can grind it out the way the Redskins did on their first two possessions of the game. Byner was the big man in scoring drives of 79 and 63 yards. He touched the ball on 14 of the team's first 20 plays.

"When you can establish the running game, that says something to [the Cardinals]," Byner said. "It sets up the passing game and allows you to open things up. That's our formula."

That formula is central to the Redskins' 3-0 start. They won't see the Giants until late October, but they were careful not to fan any flames unnecessarily.

"Obviously it feels good to be where we are right now," Byner said, "but we want to take it one game at a time. We need to maintain our concentration and let other people talk about that [the quick start].

"It's not like we have overwhelming confidence or cockiness right now. It's just that we are able to go out and be focused."

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