Clarence Harmon could see the yard stick. He could see that an extra effort would result in a first down. So he opened up his stride just as he was hit by a swarm of Cowboy tacklers.

"They really didn't try to pull me down," he said. "They went after the ball."

The ball was poked loose and Dallas tackle Randy White recovered at the Cowboy 41 with 3:49 left. Just that suddenly, the momentum of the game swung away from Washington and into the hands of Dallas quarterback Roger Staubach.

"I wasn't too optimistic after (John) Riggins' touchdown run," Dallas Coach Tom Landry said, "but the fumble recovery gave us a chance to get out of it.

"Without the fumble recovery we would not have been able to come back from 13 points down at the time."

When Harmon lost the ball, middle linebacker Neal Olkewicz was on the sidelines, looking at Washington's 34-21 lead and thinking about the playoffs. s

"I thought we were in when we had the ball," he said. "Then when we lost it, I got worried. You can't give them another chance. And we had come so close."

Harmon said he was trying to protect the ball, "but I also wanted the first down. I don't think I ever hit the ground. They just did a good job of knocking it away."

"When we were up, 34-21, it looked pretty safe. This is just something that you'll think about a lot during the winter. It will be hard to live with."

Staubach turned that break into a touchdown, then threw for another score with 39 seconds left to pull out the victory for Dallas and leave his old nemesis, tackle Diron Talbert, shaking his head.

"You can't go and run up the score on those guys because he always comes back," Talbert said. "That's the reason he is an All-Pro. You don't accidentally make All-pro; you have to perform to earn it.

"I'm familiar with what he can do. When he is hot, he is hot."

And Staubach was hot, throwing into a talented Redskin secondary for completion aftr completion. The Redskins tried everything to halt him near the end, from double coverage to lots of blitzes, but he overcome every tactic.

"We were double covering the wide receivers a lot," said Olkewicz, who had eight tackles despite a ligament strain in his knee. "That when you have to get to your backs. If you get time, you can do it."

Staubach had that time. He was tacked three times in the game, but for the most part down the stretch he was able to set up and throw without much pressure.

"He kept going to Preston Pearson," safety Mark Murphy said, "but that's smart. Preston is just a tough pass receiver. He has a knack about getting open. Staubach just stayed with him time after time."

"We just played the same as we had all game," safety Tony Peters said. "He just picked the right time to get hot. They got lucky, too, with that turnover. We had them where we wanted to and we couldn't come up with the big play to put them away."

Said Lemar Parrish: He (Staubach) is just a great quarterback. He reads defenses so well. And when we got a rush on him, he'd get away and that's so important. He hurt us by going to his backs. But give him credit. He did the right things against our defenses."

For much of the fourth period, Washington used two rookies, Monte Coleman and Rich Milot, as linebackers in its nickel defense. Milot was in mainly because Brad Dusek had torn a claf muscle and couldn't run at full speed.

Now the Redskins will have to live with memories of this game and with the knowledge, as Parrish put it, "that we are playing as well as anyone in the league, but we're going to be home for Christmas and they'll be playing."

Joe Theismann didn't think that was fair, especially because "we are eqaul to the Cowboys in every way. If they do go all the way, we could have just as well."

Coach Jack Pardee tried to console his players. He told them in the locker room, "I'm proud of you, I love you and I'm sorry it turned out the way it did. You played as well as you could."

But his words still didn't erase the players' bitterness.

"I'll tell you this," said defensive end Coy Bacon long after most of the players had left the dressing room. "Next year it's not going to boil down to any decision or any one game.

"We're going to win it on our own, with no ties. This isn't right. We're 10-6 and not in the playoffs and other teams worse than us are in.

"It's not right at all."

Other Redskin injuries included Bob Kuziel's fractured hand, Ray Waddy's bruised ribs and Phil DuBois' sprained ankle. Kuziel did not play in the second half and was replaced by Ted Fritsch. CAPTION: Picture 1,

Redskin Coach Jack Pardee, top, is besieged by fans at Redskin Park after trip from Dallas; Picture 2, no caption, Photos by Fred Sweets -- The Washington Post