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Let's go back to Jan. 12, the Washington Redskins against the 49ers, in the second round of the playoffs. It's midway through the third quarter, and the Skins are down by 11. Quarterback Mark Rypien guides Washington to the San Francisco seven, but he is intercepted in the end zone. When the Skins get the ball back, they make it to the 15, but linebacker Bill Romanowski mugs wideout Gary Clark downfield, and Rypien's pass is intercepted. Washington hollers for a flag, but none is thrown. Still trailing by 11, the Redskins get one more shot. This time they reach the 19, but on fourth down Clark fails to catch what would have been a touchdown pass, because a rookie named Eric Davis pokes him in the eye, a cute trick that is not detected by the officials. The Skins lose and, boy, are they mad. I'll bet they're still mad.

So what, you say? If the Redskins had won, they would have faced the Giants the next week anyway, and New York always beats them. But who knows? The sad part is that Rypien had to take the heat as the guy who got the Skins close but couldn't get them into the end zone when the game was on the line.

Washington will come back with a vengeance this year, and Rypien will do just fine. People once had doubts about Joe Theismann and Doug Williams, and coach Joe Gibbs kept the faith and won a Super Bowl with each of them. Others might have doubts about Rypien, but right now he's Gibbs's guy.

It would be nice if defensive end Charles Mann could recapture his old sacking skills. The interior rush is in good shape, thanks to two solid players the Skins picked up last year, Tim Johnson and Eric Williams. But one statistic from 1990 must bother Gibbs: Opposing runners gained 4.2 yards per carry, the most in the 10 years he has coached Washington. That's why Matt Millen is wearing the burgundy and gold, finally playing the position he was born to play—middle linebacker in a 4-3. I think he'll get the job done. This is Washington's year.

Let's not be too quick to kiss off the Phil Simms era. After Simms went down with a badly sprained ligament in his right arch last season, Jeff Hostetler quarterbacked the New York Giants to playoff victories over the 49ers and the Bears to reach the Super Bowl. Because the Giants face both of these heavies in the first three weeks, it seemed logical to rookie coach Ray Handley to open '91 with Hoss rather than Simms.

But these might not be the same Giants as last season's Super Bowl champs. In '90 the offense played prehistoric mushball. Grind it out behind a lot of tight ends and ageless O.J. Anderson. A great defense enables you to play that kind of game. Trouble is, the New York defense may not be as intimidating as it was last year, when coach Bill Parcells handled the psychological whipping and defensive coordinator Bill Belichick took care of the X's and O's. Both are gone (Belichick to the Browns, Parcells to the broadcast booth), and although New York still has loads of defensive talent—Lawrence Taylor, Pepper Johnson, Leonard Marshall, Erik Howard, Mark Collins et al.—that little edge might be missing.

Hostetler has never been involved in a game in which the Giants needed 30 points to win. Simms, on the other hand, has won plenty of shoot-outs. If the Giants find themselves in that position this year, you'll probably see a return of number 11, if only temporarily.

It doesn't look as if Handley is going to change things that much on offense, which is what he coached under Parcells. The personnel is still geared for mushball, and the first draft pick was another musher, 248-pound fullback Jarrod Bunch of Michigan. The only new face among the fairly anonymous crew of wideouts, Ed McCaffery, is a possession-type receiver.

Until Sunday the Dallas Cowboys' picture was very clear. If quarterback Troy Aikman stayed healthy, they were in the playoffs. If not, forget it. Last year he dislocated his right shoulder in the first quarter in Week 15, and the Cowboys lost their last two games, scoring a total of 10 points and barely missing the playoffs. Give coach Jimmy Johnson credit. He had to get a sensible backup for Aikman, and he did—trading for the Raiders' Steve Beuerlein, who had shared the starting job with Jay Schroeder for two years, '88 and '89.

Overall, the Cowboys are on the right track. They had seven draft choices in the first three rounds and 11 in the first four. With this influx of rookies Dallas will have young, fresh legs come December. But all this high-priced rookie talent hasn't overshadowed a free agent from the World League, Ricky Blake, a 235-pound fullback who's knocking 'em dead.

This is truly Johnson's club. He has taken charge of every phase of the operation, providing a textbook demonstration of how to revive a dying franchise.

The Philadelphia Eagles' new coach, Richie Kotite, has more old Jets than the Iraqi air force. His staff is loaded with them, guys who worked with Kotite when he was Joe Walton's offensive coordinator, and the playing roster has its share too. The best of the former New Yorkers is defensive coordinator Bud Carson. He replaces Jeff Fisher, who joined the Rams after the Eagles fired coach Buddy Ryan.

Carson's attack-the-pocket philosophy is the same as Fisher's and Ryan's, so the defense, which sets the tone for this team, should again be plenty tough, provided that the holdouts—end Clyde Simmons, tackle Jerome Brown and linebacker Seth Joyner—aren't too out of game shape from missing training camp.

The question is, Will the players on both sides of the ball bust their humps for Kotite the way they did for Ryan?

The offense is still seat of the pants: Randall Cunningham looking downfield, looking for tight end Keith Jackson, dumping it off to running back Keith Byars or hoofing it himself. The Eagles have been trying to build the offensive line for as long as I can remember.

Quarterback Timm Rosenbach is out for the season with a ruptured ligament in his knee, and the Phoenix Cardinals, hoping to climb out of the division cellar, are chalk for that spot. Backup Tom Tupa is a heavy-legged, journeyman type, so the offense will rely on two sturdy backs, 216-pound Johnny Johnson and 207-pound Anthony Thompson.

No one knows better than coach Joe Bugel that the NFC East is where big people live—tough guys, neighborhood bullies. They like to sit on the ball, grind it out and shove people around.

After the Cards allowed 157 rushing yards or more in five of their six division losses last year, Bugel decided he wanted big guys around him, too. So he picked up 305-pound defensive end Jeff Faulkner from Plan B and drafted 311-pound defensive end Eric Swann, who had been playing semipro ball, in the first round. Faulkner has been O.K. at right end, but Swann had to have arthroscopic surgery on his left knee twice in the preseason.

Even if the Cardinals improve, their record might not be better than last season's 5-11.




Cunningham's derring-do is the key to Philly's seat-of-the-pants offense.



Johnson banged his way to 926 yards as a rookie, and the Cards' running game took wing.