WASHINGTON -- When the Washington Redskins crash-landed yesterday at RFK Stadium, all of their parts were still intact. There may have been a few scratches on the fuselage, but everything was in working order.
The NFC East title? Still within easy reach.
The playoffs? Invitation already in hand.
The Super Bowl? The Redskins are no less favorites to get there.
A place in history? Well, coach Joe Gibbs kept saying a perfect season was only a dream, anyway.
Reality dawned on the Redskins yesterday, in a 24-21 loss to the Dallas Cowboys, who, once again it seems, have become Washington's No. 1 public enemy. So much for matching the 17-0 perfection of the 1972 Miami Dolphins.
"The undefeated season was never a goal of ours," said Redskins quarterback Mark Rypien.
"Reality says we want to win our division and get home field [advantage]," said Gibbs. "We want to be able to play two games at home in RFK. If we can somehow get that, reality tells me we did a heckuva job . . . We didn't get the dream."
The 11-1 Redskins can still clinch the East title next Sunday in Anaheim against the Los Angeles Rams. And they're just a mini-streak away from home-field advantage for two NFC playoff games. But now they've got to live with the fact the Cowboys were the team that shattered the dream of an unbeaten season.
"My experience has been you lose to teams that know you well because of the division thing," Redskins linebacker Matt Millen said. "Those are the games that are hard to win regardless of the records. You hate to lose a game like this just because of who it is. I'm not even familiar with the tradition of this rivalry, but it bugs me because I understand how it works."
It worked like eerie clockwork yesterday. That might have been Roger Staubach carving up the Redskins secondary like so much holiday turkey. Instead it was Troy Aikman, and after he went down with a sprained right knee, Steve Beuerlein, the Los Angeles Raiders' castoff. That might have been Tony Dorsett going 32 yards up the middle on a draw play for a second-quarter touchdown that served as Dallas' wakeup call. Instead it was Emmitt Smith.
This was a game where the 7-5 Cowboys lost their franchise quarterback (Aikman) but not their poise. Aikman and Beuerlein endured seven sacks between them, but it was Rypien -- unsacked in seven games -- who felt the heat of the pass rush.
"All I can say is we never felt in sync," Rypien said after his 17-for-33 performance netted 212 yards, one touchdown and one interception. "Our timing was off. But I don't want to take anything away from Dallas. They put good pressure on us and sprinkled their regular defense with some blitzes. It was a good game plan."
The Cowboys were virtually flawless on defense and enterprising on offense. They stole a touchdown from the Redskins just before halftime when Aikman threw up a Hail Mary pass and rookie wide receiver Alvin Harper came down with it in the end zone -- surrounded by four Redskins. "But they were all short," said the 6-foot-3 Harper, a former Southeastern Conference high jump champion at Tennessee. His catch made it 14-7.
"They don't practice that," Redskins cornerback Martin Mayhew said of Harper's 34-yard catch. "We don't practice it. That guy, he's tall and does a good job of getting up. He has strong hands. I think it was a great play on his part."
For three quarters, Mayhew supplied more Redskins offense than Rypien. His 31-yard interception return in the first quarter was Washington's only score until Rypien got the no-huddle offense cranked up in the fourth.
After Beuerlein hit Michael Irving for a 23-yard touchdown pass three plays into the fourth quarter, the Cowboys had a huge 357-107 advantage in total yards, and a 21-7 advantage where it counted.
It would not be that easy, though. Washington-Dallas is never that easy.
The Redskins got back to 21-14 when the hurry-up offense took them 92 yards in 15 plays, the last a 1-yard plunge by Gerald Riggs.
When the Cowboys got the ball back on their own 26, there was 8:12 on the clock and the Washington crowd of 55,561 roared its intimidation roar.
But after an incompletion, Beuerlein threw a 17-yard pass to Harper and the crowd quieted. Then Smith, who rushed for 132 yards, went to work on the clock. Seven minutes later, place-kicker Ken Willis pushed a 42-yard field goal just inside the right upright and Dallas had its winning margin.
Any miracle comeback the Redskins might have entertained was undermined by wide receiver Ricky Sanders, who, upon scoring on a 29-yard touchdown pass with 18 seconds left, spiked the ball in cornerback Issiac Holt's face. The Redskins were penalized 15 yards on the ensuing kickoff for taunting. Chip Lohmiller's on-sides kick from the 20 was covered by the Cowboys' Daryl Johnston and the Redskins' bubble had burst.
"That's probably what stings most," Rypien said. "We didn't get one taken away from us. We got beat. We got beat by a team that came in here and really doesn't feel intimidated at all.