Traffic for the Redskins game yesterday flowed smoothly as a revamped parking plan at the stadium, newfound willingness by fans to arrive early and record ridership on transit combined to avoid the crippling congestion of opening day.

That and a 31-yard field goal with 6 seconds to go that gave the Redskins a 38-36 win over the Carolina Panthers made yesterday the opposite of the dismal opening performance three weeks ago.

If the victory was in doubt until the very end, the traffic situation was much improved from the very beginning.

As the 4 p.m. kickoff neared, football fans, stadium staff and police all watched anxiously to see whether the steadily rising river of traffic would again flood its banks, as it did Sept. 12, when backups stretched for 20 miles along the Capital Beltway. But the much-feared deluge never materialized.

"It's unbelievable," said Maryland Transportation Secretary John D. Porcari, positioned inside the traffic command center at Redskins Stadium in Landover, reporting that parking was proceeding like clockwork. "There's literally no backup on any of the roads, no backups at all."

Unlike opening day, when hundreds of fans were unable to reach their seats until halftime, only a handful of stragglers failed to arrive in time yesterday to watch the Redskins fall behind within the first minutes of play and then come back -- twice -- to defeat the Panthers.

And after the game, the exit ramps and roadways cleared in slightly more than an hour -- a little longer than traffic engineers recommend but considerably quicker than three weeks ago. Before the game's start, the entrance ramps to the parking lots, utterly clogged at game time three weeks ago, were largely empty by 3:45 p.m., police reported. And traffic streamed into the stadium with such ease that Prince George's County police assigned to the surrounding roads were let go 15 minutes before kickoff.

At that moment, Rex Cooper, 34, who had gotten a ride to the stadium in a converted 1977 ambulance painted in the Redskins colors of burgundy and gold and dubbed the Fanbulance, was settling into his seat overlooking the end zone. An early departure and light traffic had ensured that he and his friends would not miss any of the contest.

"There's plenty of time," said Cooper, one of thousands of fans who honed their own strategies for either outrunning or outwitting traffic problems. "That's just the way we plan it."

Maryland State Police attributed the successful traffic management to the debut of a parking initiative directing motorists without paid permits to $15 parking at US Airways Arena, about a mile east of the stadium. "By people using the cash parking, it appears to have solved most of the problem," Sgt. Ernest D. Walker said.

Officials said that fans arrived early at the arena parking lot, filling more than 90 percent of the spots a half-hour before game time. Metro, which ran 100 free buses between the arena and the stadium, reported that 9,040 fans had taken the shuttles. Hundreds of people lined up in the lots for the buses, which could not fill up and pull out fast enough for the mounting crowds, and some impatient fans set out on foot toward the stadium instead.

Better parking management in the stadium lots, reserved for about 18,000 vehicles with permits, also contributed to the smooth flow. Stadium attendants for the first time were directed to fill the spaces in order, rather than allowing motorists to wander the lots scavenging for spaces.

"We believe we've made positive strides, and we'll continue to work on this situation and strive to improve," said Redskins President Steve Baldacci. Team officials said that their largest concern was the long lines for shuttles in the US Airways Arena lot, where about 5,000 cars parked yesterday, and that they would probably add another pickup location for future games.

The congestion also was less severe because the turnout of 76,831 was about 2,400 fans fewer than on the opening day showdown with the Dallas Cowboys.

One of the most notable successes was the ridership of 9,037 passengers recorded by Metro on the bus service between three nearby rail stations and the stadium -- the largest number ever to take transit to Redskins Stadium, according to Metro spokeswoman Cheryl Johnson. This represented a 65 percent increase over the number of fans on opening day who paid a round-trip fare of $2 to ride Metrobuses from the Addison Road, Cheverly and Landover stations. The ridership level, however, remained far short of the 14,000 fans projected to use transit when the stadium opened two seasons ago.

"This is so easy," said James Thomas Perry, 23, of Germantown, who took Metro. "The bus practically drops me off at the door."

Perry had begun his two-hour 20-minute journey to his lower-deck seats shortly before 1 p.m., after donning his lucky Redskins jersey and bundling his likewise-garbed girlfriend, Kristen Tally, 20, into the car. Outfitted with suntan lotion and a cellular phone and having made certain to remember the tickets, they headed off toward the Red Line station at Shady Grove.

At the instant they set out, Gary Hicklin, 47, of Warrenton, was steering his Fanbulance into the Metrorail station in Vienna to pick up Cooper, stuffing nine Redskins fans in amid the lounge seats before continuing along the Beltway to Landover.

"We're going good right now. We're ready to go and all psyched up," Cooper said over the blare of rock-and-roll on the radio and the cacophony of his cohorts. "We hope it's smooth sailing from here."

And only moments later, at precisely 1 p.m., Raymond Butrus, 28, and a contingent of five Redskins fans from Gaithersburg were piling into a Honda Accord and a Chevrolet Tahoe, squeezing in amid two coolers, two propane grills, six folding chairs, a case of Corona beer and bags of Pringles and Doritos.

"We try to go early enough so that we don't get caught," Butrus said.

These three groups of fans, with three different trajectories and three different modes of travel -- car, Metrorail and a converted ambulance -- were all banking that their strategies would spare them the excruciating traffic that ruined opening day for so many Redskins followers.

For those in the Fanbulance, the objective was to reach the traditional tailgate spot in the reserved gold lot at least two hours ahead of time, fire up the grill and get busy with the burgers and bratwurst. This goal seemed well within reach as they glided past the Silver Spring exit of the Beltway at 1:15 p.m.

"There haven't been any problems at all," Cooper said.

On the Red Line, Perry's journey couldn't have been proceeding any better, either. After a mere five-minute wait on the platform, he and Tally boarded a train at 1:30 p.m. and settled in for a 35-minute ride to Metro Center, where they would have to transfer.

It was at that moment that the first sign of trouble emerged for any of the travelers.

Butrus had been ever so optimistic as the two-car caravan coasted down Interstate 270 and reached the split at the Beltway, a traditional choke point that yesterday was nothing but open highway. "You couldn't ask for anything better," said the driver, Esa Fakhouri, the rosary beads hanging on his rear-view mirror clanging against a tree-shaped air freshener.

But at 1:30 p.m., they spied the initial sign of a backup on the always-so-temperamental Beltway, a line of brake lights near the Connecticut Avenue exit. An omen of another traffic debacle? The cars slowed to 35 miles an hour.

"This is a surprise. This is a surprise," Butrus said, growing slightly worried. "I didn't expect this."

In less than a minute, however, the clot had cleared and the caravan was back up to 60 mph. Not until they approached the stadium at 1:45 p.m., with Landover Mall rising on the right, did the Beltway once again grow thick with cars and trucks. The Honda eased into the right lane and exited onto the ramp, blessedly clear.

"This is the least traffic we've ever had," Butrus said as the car descended into the US Airways Arena lot. His crew unfolded a table, assembled the chairs and tossed chicken breasts and hot dogs to smoke on a pair of grills.

The arrival of the Fanbulance at Redskins Stadium at exactly the same time, however, was not exactly as easy. Under the new parking plan, the Redskins had barred Hicklin and his fellow partyers from pitching camp in the spot they had always claimed for the last two seasons, directing them to another location in the stadium lot.

"They took a bad situation and made it worse," Hicklin said, toting out his grill. "We're always here two hours early, and today we're here two and a half hours early so that we could get our same spot, and this is the first time we couldn't park there. At least the Fanbulance got here."

As smoke began to billow from these two tailgate parties on either side of the Beltway, Perry and Tally were switching to the Orange Line at Metro Center at 2:10 p.m, joining a throng of Redskins followers. The closer they came to the stadium, the louder the car grew with fans striking up a new camaraderie and sharing their sense of superiority for avoiding Beltway congestion.

"Metro can't be any worse than driving," said passenger Mark Huffman. Did he consider traveling by car after hearing stories about the traffic at the season opener? "For a nanosecond."

They arrived at Landover station at 2:30 p.m. and claimed a place in the line of fans awaiting shuttle buses, the last leg of the trek. A half-hour later, they were deposited at the doorstep of the stadium. Perry and Tally found their first-tier seats and raised their "Pound the Panthers" signs. It was 3:10 p.m., nearly an hour before kickoff.

Butrus and his friends were still in the parking lot. As quickly as they set up their tailgate party, they dismantled it shortly before 3:15 p.m. and headed toward the conga line of Metro shuttle buses fed by a longer queue of fans. Several in the group decide to walk the mile to the stadium, but Butrus and the others remained in line, waiting only five minutes to board a bus.

The Fanbulance crew members were also packing it in. After slightly less than two hours of feasting and drinking, they suspended the carousing until after the final whistle. "We won't close down the set entirely because it does need to be opened up just a few hours from now," Hicklin said.

At 3:50 p.m., they ascended to the Club Level and, after a pair of drinks on the way, settled into their seats overlooking the end zone.

Ten minutes later and well above the Fanbulance crew's heads, Butrus and Fakhouri found their seats in the upper deck, high above a distant gridiron that looked like green velvet. The players were lining up for the kickoff.

"All in all," Butrus said, "this wasn't bad at all."

Staff writers Hamil R. Harris, Lyndsey Layton, David Nakamura, Nancy Trejos and Josh White contributed to this report.