The Redskins are in a race against time and nature. If they cannot find ways to outlast both, any hopes they have of making the playoffs will be doused long before the first biting winds of winter.

That's why words like "must" and "pivotal" are being used around Redskin Park this week to describe Sunday's game against Seattle.

A victory over the Seahawks would extend that struggle against both adversaries one more week -- and right now, extra days are very precious to Washington's football team. A loss to Seattle would drop Washington's record to 1-3, with games at Philadelphia and at Denver coming up the next two weeks.

The Redskin will be underdogs in both of those contests, which means they could be staring at a 1-5 record after six weeks. Since it took a 10-6 mark to get the NFC playoffs last year, that would indicate they might have to win seven of their final eight contests to stay in postseason contention, a formidable task in such a well-balanced league.

But a win over Seattle buys time.

"Let's face it," one Redskin said yesterday. "We're in big trouble if we lose this one. Big trouble."

In another week, more of the limping and wounded might be back to join tackle Terry Hermeling, who has returned to practice and will start Sunday.

Middle linebacker Neal Olkewicz is on the verge of being well enough to play and with a few more days rest for his ailing knee, could be able to take a regular turn. Tackle George Starke has had the cast removed from his knee and is undergoing rehabilitation. He too could be ready next week. The same goes for tight end Don Warren, whose aching leg is still too weak for him to play on Sunday.

But the Redskins have to buy time. "We are getting close, real close," Coach Jack Pardee said. "But we have to hold our own, at least, while everyone gets back.

"If we are to have any hope for this year, we need some wins. They won't do us much good down the road if we don't win now.

"We can't look around hoping for help. The point is, we have to win this week with the people we have. If not, then it will tell us something about ourselves."

Pardee was asked if he felt this, indeed, is a crucial weekend. "Oh, maybe it's too early for that," he said, "but I certainly don't want to lose this game. We've got a tough stretch coming up. We need to go into it with a 2-2 record."

These past few weeks have been unbelievably confusing and complex at Redskin Park because of the injury outbreak. Just losing important starters would have been bad enough. But with disabilities to both starting tackles and to two tight ends, the Redskins have been forced to break in inexperienced first-stringers within days at spots that take months to master.

The team also has had to perform shorthanded at some positions, while overloading others. And regulars have been forced to play on special teams more than Pardee would like in order to fill gaping holes in kick coverage.

The offensive game plan has had to be simplified to accommodate the newcomers, which makes the Redskins easier to defense. Yet there have been killing mistakes by younger players that have jarred the continuity of the running game and hindered pass protection for quarterback Joe Theismann.

"We're certainly not where we want to be after three weeks," Pardee said. "All the new players and the injuries have put us behind. But it's time we caught up."

Pardee and his players have studied the upcoming schedule. After Philadelphia and Denver, they begin a stretch that includes home games against St. Louis, New Orleans and Minnesota and a road game at Chicago. All are opponents Washington can match up with, as long as the Redskins are healthy.

But Pardee long ago gave up trying to determine when his injured would heal. Olkewicz was figured to be out a couple of weeks when he first was hurt, but twisted the knee again in practice and now has been laid up for six weeks. Linebacker Brad Dusek's badly torn hamstring took eight weeks to heal instead of four. Guard Jeff Williams' thigh contusion kept him out most of training camp. He was supposed to miss only a couple of exhibition games.

And even the return of the limping does not necessarily mean they will be in top form. Dusek started last week against Oakland and survived the test, but he is not yet 100 percent. Warren started against the Giants two weeks ago despite a hairline leg fracture and played with great heart, but a completely healed Warren does much better.

Yet there is great pressure to rush back the injured players. The Redskins already know that Pardee expects them to shrug off minor bumps and bruises under any circumstance. And under these extraordinary conditions, when the future of the season is at stake, they consider playing when they should be home watching games on television.

"It kills you on game days," Olkewicz said. "You see guys doing double duty because you are out. You see them dragging and you want to help. You get frustrated. I'd play now if they'd let me. I would have played two weeks ago. But I see their point. If I hurt it again, I'm out for the season."

When Olkewicz was hurt in the preseason, he began rehabilitation in a relatively uncrowded training room. Now, he says, "you have to stand in line to use the whirlpool.

"The injured guys are sort of drawn together by what's happened to them. We talk about the injuries and about the team. We are suffering together."

The irony is that the injured spend more time at Redskin Park than the healthy. Olkewicz starts treatment at 9 a.m. -- "whirlpool for 15 minutes, ultrasound for 10, ride the bike for 15, do the Nautilus machine for some exercises, then on to the team meeting" -- and is one of the last to leave the park after going through more postpractice work.

"I never had a knee injury before," Olkewicz said. "I pushed this just like I would any other injury and I probably shouldn't have. But by hurting it again in practice, it just showed me it wasn't ready to go yet."

Pardee admits it is tempting to rush back his starters into the lineup. He probably used Warren much too soon, and now the tight end's rehabilitation is lagging. The coach has been very cautious with Olkewicz since the practice injury incident.

"You want to get them all in as soon as you can," Pardee said. "We all know what is at stake. But I keep in mind that a few more days might be beneficial. It's just something you have to live with and hope that everything turns out all right at the end."

With leading rusher Sherman Smith sidelined, Seattle may use a two-fullback backfield on Sunday: Dan Doornink and Jim Jodat. . .The game is scheduled to start at 4 p.m. instead of the regular 1 p.m. kickoff.