It always seems to end this way for the Redskins: players pounding the ground in frustration, normally outgoing men burying their heads in silence, the playoffs a possibility only if somebody else loses.

There were no doubts about the effort on either side today. And there are few doubts about the most useless athetic exercise of the year, the NFC wild-card playoff. In this game, five of a kind beats nothing.

Five teams remain in contention for what ought to b known as the Fiasco Bowl Christmas Eve. Four of them lost this weekend -- and the fifth won only because the Falcons and Redskins played each other here today.

The major surprise for Washingtonians was not that the Redskins lost -- or even how, because the Falcons have won four games by 20-17 on final-moment touchdowns or field goals. But how many times does Mike Bragg have a punt blocked? How many times is Ron McDole caught offsides? How many times is the ball stolen from John Riggins?

"For two guys who are supposed to be good punters," said Bragg, referring to himself and the Falcons' John James, "we sure stank it up. Never saw so many shanks."

Until today, Bragg had punted 365 straight times without a block, or since Mark Washington of the dallas Cowboys managed one in 1974. He will long remember a fellow he should not have forgotten, today, Rick Byas.

"It was a 10-man rush," Bragg said, "and that means that one man if free. My job is to beat that free man -- and there are two ways to do it. I didn't do either.

"I can offset him by kicking in the opposite direction from his rush. Or I simply can kick it before he gets there. They've blocked a lot of kicks this year (five in all) and this one was my fault.

"I guess I just didn't respect the fact that they could block a punt."

Byas had blocked one other punt this season and the immediate result was a touchdown. This time the ball also bounced into the end zone -- and an unfortunate squirt cost the Redskin five points.

As Byas tried to control the ball in the end zone, it popped from his grasp. It was a foot or so from bouncing out of the end zone, which would have been a safety. Instead, it bounced a yard or so back onto the field, and two plays later Atlanta had a touchdown.

"You want the free guy to have to run as far as possible," Pete Wysocki said. "He came from the outside, but he could have been forced to run even more if we (the interior blockers) had taken wider splits. But we didn't because we wanted to make sure nobody got through on the inside."

Ironically, Bragg had the best pass of the day, a swift spiral that Terry Anderson caught all alone about 20 yards upfield on fourth-and-10. Anderson carried 36 yards more before being run down by a 225-pound lineman, Edgar Fields.

The risk on that play was that while Anderson might have appeared open on the flank, the opposition could have sprung someone from the line just as the ball was snapped and gotten to him before the pass.

"Not in that situation," Bragg said. "He was wide enough so nobody could get to him in time."

Predictably, with first-and-goal from the four, the Redskins were able to generate only a field goal. The final numbers insisted the offense was more productive than most eyes saw.

Given what had taken place the previous two games, the offense today was a juggernaut. It actually scored two meaningful touchdowns.But their were too many occasional long gainers and not enough sustained drives.

In one series, quarterback Joe Theismann missed tight end Jean Fugett by an acre on first down, was buried for a six-yard loss on second down and watched a decent pass sail through the arms of Danny Buggs on third down.

Another time, on first down from the Falcon 38, Theismann and halfback Benny Malone collided behind the line. Theismann still was able to throw an accurate pass --and Fugett dropped it.

But mention must be made of a Redskin play midway through the fourth quarter. It was a sweep that actually made yardage. Malone had been hammered almost senseless twice before, but this time not only remained upright but also turned the corner unmolested.

Ron Saul and John McDaniel threw obvious blocks and Malone gained 31 yards. But he caused "a couple" bad plays by running the wrong way.

Later, as instant grief was beginning to fade into frustration, Wysocki spoke of "being home with our families for Christmas, playing our last game next week..."

Wait a second, Pete. If the Eagles and either the Vikings or the Packers lose and if the Redskins beat the Bears Saturday in RFK Stadium, the Redskins will make the playoffs.

"I'll be damned," Wysocki said. "Well, we'll see what happens. I wish just one year we could do something the easy way."