Halfback Joe Washington said yesterday he was "sure" he would play in the Redskins' game at Buffalo Sunday despite a painful rib injury that limits his mobility.

But Redskin Coach Joe Gibbs said he would prepare a game plan this week as if Washington were not available.

"We'll probably take the approach as if he can't play," said Gibbs. "John Riggins would start with Nick Giaquinto and Otis Wonsley backing him up. If Joe can go, then it would be a bonus. If he can't practice much this week, we'd go with John. It just depends on how much work he gets.

"Knowing Joe, I think he'll play. It's a matter of how much pain he can tolerate more than anything else. You can't shoot it up to help deaden the pain. Not having him certainly limits us, no question about that."

Washington tore cartilage in his left rib cage late in the first half against Dallas Sunday and did not return. Before being injured, he had gained 84 yards rushing and caught three passes for 47 more.

His presence is essential for the Redskins to make a long-shot run at an NFC wild-card playoff spot. The team is 5-3 this year when he has been able to play an entire game, but 0-4 when he has missed either all or more than a half of a contest.

"Our chances at a playoff spot are cut and dried," Gibbs said. "We have to win four straight. That's what I told my players. There is no guess work involved."

Buffalo also could be without its best runner, halfback Joe Cribbs, who incurred cracked ribs in the first quarter of Sunday's game against New England.

A Buffalo spokesman said Cribbs is considered questionable for the Redskin game, although an official injury report won't be released until Wednesday.

Washington said his ribs felt better yesterday. "They are still sore but I can put my hand on the sore spot, where yesterday I couldn't touch it," he said.

"I'm sure I'll be able to play, the game's a whole week away. It's just a matter of not getting it hit again or doing anything to aggravate it. If nothing happens, I'll be okay."

Although he worked out briefly yesterday with a small flak jacket protecting the ribs, Washington said he would rather not wear the device in a game.

"Anything extra weight is too much weight for me," he said. "I'll probably bring it with me and then take it off. I just don't like them.

"I had a similar injury at Oklahoma and played the next week. I had a flak jacket and didn't use it then, either."

Washington is both the Redskins' leading rusher (624 yards) and leading receiver (51 catches for 408 yards). He is by far their quickest player and his running style adds a unique dimension to the Redskin offense.

With Riggins as a starter, the team would rely less on sweeps and draws and more on power runs. Giaquinto, a 5-foot-11, 204-pound halfback signed off waivers two weeks ago after being released by Miami, is considered a good receiver coming out of the backfield. Wonsley, who has been a special teams standout all season, has been a particular favorite of Gibbs, who believes he has good running ability.

Giaquinto carried twice against Dallas for 18 yards and caught three passes for 26. Wonsley has three rushing attempts this season, for 11 yards.

"We'd love for Joe to play, but that's going to be entirely up to him," Gibbs said. "My policy is that when a guy is hurt, I want to protect him as best as I can. I won't play him unless he is 100 percent. I'll never do anything that will jeopardize him down the road. If he can't go 100 percent, we'll go with someone else."

Meanwhile, Gibbs and his staff also were considering more defensive changes in wake of Dallas' 470-yard output Sunday, including 258 rushing yards and 12 pass plays of 10 or more yards.

"One thing we could do," Gibbs said, "is move Monte Coleman from right linebacker to left linebacker. There are a number of things like that. We are still juggling personnel, searching for the right combination."

Coleman did not play well against the Cowboys on the right side. He prefers the left and has admitted he is struggling playing an uncomfortable position. Dallas ran 28 of its 47 running plays to the Redskins' right, gaining 163 yards. Washington wound up benching Dexter Manley, the right end, and removing Coleman at times.

"We just weren't very sharp on offense or defense," Gibbs said. "We didn't play very well, not like we have been playing the last few weeks. We didn't make the plays in long-yardage situations, either, on offense or defense. That was our downfall. But all season long on offense, a tough situation for us has been long-yardage downs deep in our own territory when we are behind.

"The game showed me we are capable of moving the ball against a good team when we stay in regular yardage situations. But it was such a strange game that I really didn't get the kind of gauge on my team that I thought I would."

Guard Russ Grimm will have surgery on his right knee after the season to repair cartilage damage, according to Gibbs. "It keeps popping out but he keeps playing," Gibbs said . . . Guard Melvin Jones, who has recovered from a pinched nerve in his neck, probably will regain his starting spot from veteran Ron Saul this week. Jones played most of the second half against Dallas . . . The Redskins aren't optimistic about cornerback Lemar Parrish's returning any time soon. Parrish had minor knee surgery two weeks ago . . . Dallas' rushing total was the highest against Washington in 47 games . . . Other injuries from the Dallas game were safety Mark Murphy (thigh), receiver Ricky Thompson (torn finger liagments) and cornerback Jeris White (sore knee).