Both teams once were among the best of the National Football Conference. Both once defied convention and won with aging players instead of breaking in younger athletes. And now both are struggling to regain even a touch of their former glory.

The fall from the top was abrupt for Minnesota, which last season didn't make the playoffs for the first time in six years. Washington has lived longer with failure: it hasn't played in a postseason game since 1976.

Today's matchup between the Vikings and the Redskins at 4 p.m. in RFK Stadium (WDVM-TV9) once would have been a major event in the NFL, with national television coverage and a full press box. But no longer. Banner headlines aren't produced by teams with 3-5 records.

But while the Redskins have started the climb back after losing four of their first five games this season, the Vikings still are struggling. They have fallen in four of their last five contests and haven't scored a touchdown in three weeks. And their quarterback, Tommy Kramer, has a banged-up throwing hand that could limit his effectiveness today, if he starts.

"They are going through a transition period," said Washington Coach Jack Pardee. "They are going with younger players who they hope will develop into stars.

"But they really aren't doing things differently. Only the cast has changed. When they were the team that went to the Super Bowl five times, they would come out with the same game plan every week. They'd use maybe only two coverages. But when you have the talent, it's hard to be stopped."

Minnesota's talent now is centered around a few positions, mainly wide receivers Sammy White and Ahmad Rashad, who have 55 receptions, and backs Ted Brown (28 catches) and Rickey Young.

Normally, the Redskins would expectthe Vikings to throw frequently, since no Minnesota rusher has gained more than 62 yards the last five weeks and the team is averaging just 83 yards a game on the ground, 11th in the NFC.

But Pardee thought the same thing last week against New Orleans, only to have the run-poor Saints stick to a fairly successful rushing attack. With Kramer less than 100 percent, and with the New Orleans game film readily available for study, Pardee sees added emphasis on the run in Minnesota's offensive plan.

"All they have to do is look at our record against the run and what New Orleans did last week and I'm sure they will check us out," he said. "But they have a legitimate talent in Ted Brown as a runner. He's not like Jimmie Rogers last week for New Orleans, a guy we knew nothing about. Brown can hurt you."

The Redskin defensive brain trust has a small dilemma. Last week, they decided to double-team wide receiver Wes Chandler and give up running yards. But how do you double-team both White and Rashad without leaving the rest of the defense vulnerable? Still, if the Redskins concentrate on stopping the run, Pardee fears Minnesota can strike quickly with big plays, something that has plagued the league's No. 1 ranked pass defense.

"We can't let them have the easy, quick scores," Pardee said. "They've got a lot of big-play men."

Minnesota also has a lot of weaknesses. Kramer has been sacked 22 times because of a porous, injured offensive line. He also has thrown 17 interceptions. The Redskins want to put a lot of pressure on Kramer or his backup, Steve Dils, because Pardee is convinced a good front four rush has caused a majority of the mistakes.

The Redskin pass rush has improved the last few weeks, helped out immensely by blitzing young linebackers Rich Milot and Monte Coleman. Coleman started last week but Pete Wysocki, whose strength is run defense, gets the nod this week.

Because Washington likes to play so much man to man, cornerbacks Lemar Parrish and Joe Lavender will be playing key roles. They frequently will be asked to handle White and Rashad one on one, another reason Pardee hopes his players can hurry the Minnesota passer.

He has found from his own team's experience what an unpressured quarterback can produce. Joe Theismann hasn't been sacked in four of the last five games and the dumps for the year, 10, are the fewest in the conference. And this from an offensive line that was having trouble blocking anyone early in the season.

Theismann has responded by leading the Redskins to two victories in a row while the offense has gained more than 300 yards each of the last four games.

The line, however, will be missing guard Jeff Williams, sidelined indefinitely with a bruised thigh.His place will be taken by Fred Dean, the club's utility man. Dean and his mates probably will be asked to block for a lot of running plays, since Minnesota is giving up even more yards rushing per game than Washington.

"We have been moving the ball great, but we'd like to score more touchdowns," Theismann said. "We've got to finish drives off. We know that. But having Mark Moseley back in the groove helps too. He is a major force in our offense with his (field goal) kicking."

Moseley broke out of a season-long slump with five field goals last week. But Pardee doesn't want his team to be satisfied with three points at the end of drives. With a stretch of tough teams coming up, he wants the offense to play even more consistently than it has been.

"We've made progress every week the last few games," Pardee said, "but we need to keep getting better. Minnesota is a team we can match up with, but we still have to play good football. We can't let mistakes kill us, and then we'll be okay."

The Vikings have numerous injuries, but they do get linebacker Matt Blair back after a two-week absence because of a separated shoulder. . . Dils has thrown only eight passes this year as Kramer's backup . . . Part of Minnesota's fall from the top stems from the lackluster play of many of their No. 1 draft choices, especially along the defensive line.