The record will show that Joe Danelo's 30-yard field goal with three seconds to play allowed the New York Giants to escape the Meadowlands today with a 20-17 victory over the Washington Redskins, the team they love to hate.

But the Redskins will tell you - and you have heard it before - that they defeated themselves this steamy September afternoon. Today, they probably were right.

How else does one explain Mike Thomas' costly fumble deep in Redskin territory late in the fourth quarter on a play quarterback Billy Kilmer thought could gain a half-dozen yards - but instead ended in disaster, and coach George Allen's first opening-day loss in 12 years

And there was Ken Houston's misfortune in trying to bat away a desperate pass in the fourth quarter, only to have the intended Giant receiver pick the tipped ball out of the air. That completion set up the game-tying touchdown on the next play.

Thomas' fumble - "It was such a shock." he said - and Harry Carson's recovery at the Redskin 19 gave the Giants the football with 1:48 to play.

Three straight handoffs to Larry Csonka up the middle positioned the ball perfectly, killed the clock and set up Danelo's second straight game-winning field goal against the Redskins. Last year, his 50-yard field goal beat Washington, 12-9.

A year ago Thomas twice fumbled here. Last year, there were tears in his eyes afterwards. Today, there was a shrug of the shoulders and an angry response when someone intimated he was responsible for the Redskins' downfall.

"It was just one of those unfortunate things," he said. "If all you guys are saying I lost this . . . well I don't want to talk to you.

"I don't know what happened. The ball just went out of my hand. I felt like I got hit before I got control. I know it looks bad for me. It was a very big play at a very bad time. But it wasn't the only one."

No, the Redskins could look back at all manner of crushing blunders and just plain bad luck to explain this season-opening shocker.

There was Kilmer completing his first pass of the day to Giant defensive end George Martin, who promptly ran 30 yards the other way for a touchdown with 3:40 left in the first period to give New York a 6-0 lead.

"I just didn't get it over his head," said Kilmer, who took responsibility for the loss.

And there was Danny Buggs being called for illegal use of the hands, nullifying Eddie Brown's 51-yard punt return to the Giant 29 late in the second quarter. Allen later insisted the official made a bad call "and they'll see it when they look at the films."

Houston will be wincing at the films this week. After the Redskins had rallted from 10-0 down with 17 points in the first 11 1/2 minutes of the final quarter, the Giants were throwing deep in desperation in the final three minutes, trailing by 17-10.

On second and 10 from his 45, rookie quarterback Jerry Golsteyn lofted a long pass in the direction of wide receiver Ed Marshall. Houston was a step behind Marshall, but managed to get his left hand on a ball that was slightly underthrown.

The football deflected toward Marshall, who one-handed it, and by the time Houston and Brown dragged him down, Marshall was at the Redskin eight, the 76,086 in the stands were in a frenzy, and the Giants were back in business.

"I was trying to knock the ball down," said Houston. "I may have overrun it, really. It was just one of those plays."

The Giants wasted no time taking advantage of the opportunity.On first and goal, Golsteyn faked a handoff up the middle, then threw a lovely pass to wide open reserve tight end Gary Shirk angling to the right corner of the end zone. Danelo's extra point tied the game at 17 and Thomas' fumble followed two plays later.

Kilmer finally got his team moving late in the first half during the two-minute drill, pushing the Redskins from their 24 to a first down at the Giant 31 with 15 seconds left.

But he decided to go for broke, a touchdown. That was a decision he also second-guessed later. The Giants went into the locker room with a 7-0 lead after Kilmer's pass for Charley Taylor in the end zone was batted down by Ray Rhodes.

The Giants increased their lead to 10-0 early in the third period when Danelo kicked a 22-yard field goal. The Redskins got two major breaks during the New York drive, however. On third and five from the Washington five, Giant back Bobby Hammond appeared to have popped over the goal line for a touchdown.

But head linesman Gil Mace ruled Hammond's knee had come down at the one. The Giants gambled on fourth down, but guard Doug Van Horn was called for jumping offside before Willie Spencer scored, and the Giants settled for the field goal.

The Redskins finally got on the board with a penalty-aided 58-yard drive. Thomas, cutting back inside left end for a three-yard touchdown run behind crushing blacks thrown by Ron Saul and John Riggins.

Still another Giant penalty allowed the Redskins to take the lead on their next drive. On second and 11 from his 44, Kilmer sent tight end Jean Fuggett deep.

The ball was slightly overthrown, but Giant safety Larry Mallory clearly was hanging on Fugett's back. The pass interference call gave the Redskins a 42-yard gain and a first down at the Giant 14.

Two plays later, Kilmer bootlegged right and hit Riggins with a three-yard touchdown pass.

Riggins had a fine day, picking up 79 yards in the 20 carries Kilmer had promised to give him every game this year.

After the game the Redskins passed around compliments about the Giants, and vowed to improve next week against an Atlanta team that upset the Rams today.

"This isn't the end of the world," Kilmer insisted. "I've seen other teams lose the opener and win 12 or 13 games."

But those sort of teams do not commit 10 penalties for 85 yards, as the alarming rate the Redskins have played give-away since the preseason started.

And there was other bad news for the Redskins. Veteran defensive end Ron McDole left the game after dislocating his left elbow tackling Csonka on the second play from scrimmage. The Redskins' medical men insisted it was too early to tell how long McDole will be out of action, although they said X-rays did not reveal chips or breaks. McDole may be available next week.

Right guard Terry Hermeling strained his right knee when he and Higgins tangled legs in the third period. Hermeling's status also will not be known until later this week, although he said his knee was "hurting kinda bad."