This was about perseverance.

This was about a quarterback who climbed all the way back from the depths of his worst day of the season, only to throw the winning touchdown pass with 5:15 left to play to a wide receiver who had been open deep all afternoon. This was about a defense that twice in the fourth quarter came up with stirring goal-line stands inside the 6-yard line.

And this was about a defensive back who came off the bench despite what he described as "intense pain" from the recurrence of a much-ballyhooed rib injury to break up the opposition's last hope for a game-tying touchdown in the final minute with a cartilage-rattling hit just off the goal line.

And above all, this was about the Super Bowl.

The Washington Redskins are going to San Diego to face the Denver Broncos -- who yesterday defeated the Cleveland Browns, 38-33 {Details, Page D1} -- on Jan. 31 by virtue of their nerve-racking, hang-on-for-dear-life, 17-10 victory over the Minnesota Vikings yesterday before 55,212 towel-twirling fans at RFK Stadium, most of them leaving the place with a smile on their lips and palpitations in their hearts.

It was like that all over town this comfortably crisp winter day, and it's been like that most of this season of the frantic finish. "It's been so up and down all year," said Redskins General Manager Bobby Beathard. "There's been nothing smooth about it. . . . But I've never seen a Redskins team play any harder than these guys did today."

Certainly, the defense rarely had been better. Early in the fourth period, the Redskins stopped Minnesota on back-to-back runs at their own 1, forcing Chuck Nelson's 18-yard field goal that tied the score at 10-10 with 10:06 to play. "When we forced them to take the field goal, that was the key to this game," Coach Joe Gibbs said.

There was more -- eight sacks by a blitzing defense, one short of the National Football Conference championship game record. And a critical interception by linebacker Mel Kaufman after Dave Butz stood tall in the pocket and batted the ball at the line of scrimmage set up a 28-yard field goal by Ali Haji-Sheikh for a 10-7 lead with 4 1/2 minutes left in the third quarter.

And then there was the quarterback, Doug Williams, who seemed either a step slow, a yard short or five yards too long on most of his throws this day. But he had perseverance, first to find Gary Clark open for a 43-yard gain to the Vikings 11, then two plays later on an improvised pattern to the same little big man for the score that sent his team to San Diego.

Later, in the locker room, he was asked about the choke label some had attached to his name in years past. The man who will become the first black starting quarterback in the history of the Super Bowl could only laugh. "I'll choke all the way to San Diego," said Williams, savoring the moment.

When they study their game films over the next two weeks, all of the Redskins and their followers will savor the moments of the team's final stand at the goal line.

As Gibbs knelt on the side line, the crowd was up and roaring as the Vikings faced fourth and four at the Redskins 6 with 56 seconds to play. On the field, "it seemed like a hundred different guys were talking in the huddle, but once we broke it, all you could do was concentrate," said Redskins cornerback Darrell Green.

Earlier in the quarter, he had left the field clutching his side in intense pain from the sprained cartilage he had suffered against the Chicago Bears a week ago. He had been given a painkiller shot before the game, but that had long since worn off. His stay on the bench lasted only one series. "I had to play," he said. "I knew I had to be in there."

And now, on the last play, he was trying to concentrate on covering Anthony Carter, the Vikings' deadly dangerous wide receiver.

When it became apparent to him that Carter had run out of maneuvering space and was no longer a factor deep in the left corner of the end zone, Green saw Minnesota quarterback Wade Wilson looking toward running back Darrin Nelson in front of him near the goal line. Green left his zone, broke for the ball and arrived almost simultaneously with it. The eminently catchable pass hit Nelson's hands, and Green jolted Nelson from behind as the ball fell incomplete.

Redskins football.

Redskins in the Super Bowl for the third time this decade, more than any other team of the 1980s.

Up in the owner's box, Jack Kent Cooke finally could breathe easily and hug his friends, people such as Paul Laxalt, George Will and Lesley Stahl, all of them waving those "touchdown towels" provided by a team sponsor to everyone who walked into the stadium.

"I was quivering," he said after a quick visit to his team's jubilant locker room. "Look at my hand. I'm still shaking."

Mayor Marion Barry and his wife Effi came by. His Honor worked the locker room, dressed in a burgundy sweater and a burgundy cowboy hat adorned with a gold feather, and shaking hands wherever he could.

The whole town was shaking last night, and rocking, as well. As fans departed RFK Stadium and drove down East Capitol Street after the game, children held aloft placards imploring drivers to "honk if you love the Redskins." In Georgetown, car horns blared as well, jubilant fans leaned out windows and shinnied up light poles as police kept traffic moving, preparing for a bit of wild-in-the-street action after dark.

It had been far tamer earlier in the day. As fans filed toward the stadium, they could stop momentarily to peruse souvenir items as diverse as key chains with computer chips playing the team's fight song, Hog-snout hats and genuine "Redskin Warbonnets" costume jewelry touted as "American Indian Made in Cherokee, North Carolina."

A half-dozen entrepreneurs from a downtown bar were applying "war paint" to anyone willing to pay $2 for the privilege, and later dropped the price to $1 "because we're civic-minded," said one painter. And one fellow from New York was giving out what he described as "lucky Redskin potatoes," guaranteed to provide a home-team advantage. All he wanted was a ticket.

Three hours before kickoff, the price of admission from one scalper was two tickets for $80 each. As the game approached, the price, as usual, dropped within reason. Whatever the cost, most found it worth the price of admission.

"It's amazing to have this many things go wrong during the season and still finish 11-4, then come in against the hottest team in the playoffs and do this," Beathard said. "Sometimes, when you have as many opportunities offensively as we did today and you don't score, your defense gets frustrated and lets up a little. Today, the defense never let up."

Today, it was all about perseverance.

And a Super Bowl.