ASHBURN, Va. -- When Washington Redskins safety Danny Copeland was walking from the parking lot to the RFK Stadium entrance Sunday, a fan came up to him with a message.
"He said, 'You guys are going to play our Super Bowl next week.' " Copeland said yesterday.
"You know what that means," Copeland said. "If we can beat the Cowboys, it's like a winning season. That's the way our fans are. They want us to beat Dallas."
The Redskins get their shot Sunday in Texas Stadium.
Although they have two games left -- the other one is on New Year's Eve against the Minnesota Vikings -- a victory over Dallas is the one thing that would help salvage this season.
It would give them an improbable sweep over the Cowboys in a season in which they've won only three other games.
For the Cowboys, this game is supposed to be a tuneup for their battle against the New York Giants the next Sunday when the division title will be on the line.
For the Redskins, it's all that's left to this season.
It's almost hard to believe that this is a matchup of the past two Super Bowl champions.
The Redskins have looked so inept during their 4-10 season that their 1991 Super Bowl season seems longer than two years ago.
The Redskins did beat the Cowboys in the Monday night opener, 35-16, in what now looks like a much bigger surprise than it did at the time.
There probably should be an asterisk next to that game, though. At the time, running back Emmitt Smith was a holdout.
If the Redskins can repeat the feat with Smith in the lineup, it would qualify as a stunning turn of events.
They couldn't stop Smith when they were on their way to the Super Bowl in 1991.
He got 112 and 134 yards in the two games against them.
The Redskins won the first one, 33-31, and lost the second matchup (24-21) when they were 11-0.
Smith became the first player to rush for 100 or more yards five straight games against a Richie Petitbon defense when he gained 139 yards in the Cowboys' 23-10 victory in the opener last year.
The Redskins ended the streak by holding him to 99 yards in the second game when they upset the Cowboys, 20-17.
In that game, Jason Buck knocked the ball out of Troy Aikman's hand in the end zone and Copeland recovered for the winning touchdown in the fourth quarter.
Smith should have no trouble getting 100 yards in this game because the Redskins have had all sorts of problems with their run defense.
Atlanta's Steve Broussard came into Sunday's game with 42 yards in 12 carries. He torched the Redskins for 162 yards in 26 carries as the Falcons ran 35 times for 182 yards.
The Redskins survived only because the Falcons committed six turnovers.
Viewing the videotape of the Atlanta game, Petitbon said, "It's obviously a lot easier today looking at the movies than it usually has been."
But what concerns Petitbon most is the run defense. With Bobby Wilson and Shane Collins returning, they had good pressure on the Falcons and sacked Bobby Hebert seven times, but couldn't stop the run.
"I think we've had trouble with this the whole year," Petitbon said.
"It's really bothered us."
It could bother the Redskins a lot Sunday, but Petitbon didn't want to worry about that yesterday.
"Dallas has a pretty good offensive line, believe me. And a pretty good running back, too. We'll worry about that tomorrow," he said.
The NFL single-game rushing record of 275 yards was set by Hall of Famer Walter Payton against the Minnesota Vikings in 1977. If the Redskins don't improve their defense against the run, Smith could have a shot at that mark.
NOTES: General manager Charley Casserly said yesterday that he didn't want to discuss the ramifications of the new TV contract on the salary cap until he gets the exact numbers from the league, but said it looks "like a more optimistic picture than was presented to us earlier." A higher salary cap number may make it easier for the Redskins to retain players. Casserly is conducting negotiations this week with several players, notably DL Bobby Wilson and OL Ray Brown, in the hopes of getting new deals done before the Thursday deadline. After that, all deals will be counted against the cap.