So it's not 1972 with the NFC championship at stake.

So it's not Diron Talbert against Roger Staubach.

So it's not a must-win game for either team.

But it is the Cowboys against the Redskins and that's enough to make this a special afternoon in RFK Stadium (game time: 4 p.m.).

Dallas, the league's most successful franchise the last 16 years, has grown accustomed to such games. Upstart opponents always want to gain a reputation by beating the Cowboys.

A decade ago, Washington was the Cowboys' equal. Since 1976, the Redskins haven't been in the playoffs; Dallas has won a Super Bowl and the last five games between these teams.

"We want to see how good we are, that's what this is all about," guard Russ Grimm said. "You know Dallas always is good and we know people are wondering how good we are, even after winning four straight. This is a way to find out."

The confrontation may lack the evangelical fervor of the George Allen era, but don't be deceived. Redskins players, coaches and staff don't like the Cowboys one bit. They simply keep their emotions more private now.

The Redskins certainly can't match the more experienced, deeper Cowboys in talent. The Redskins are still a team in transition, with five new starters on defense and seven on offense since Joe Gibbs took over as coach last year.

But Washington has improved surprisingly quickly under Gibbs, just as the San Francisco 49ers rose quickly last season under Bill Walsh. And like the Redskins, the 49ers were feeling good about themselves when they encountered Dallas on the sixth weekend last year. San Francisco won, 45-14, then beat the Cowboys again in the NFC title game. The 49ers considered the first victory a springboard to the Super Bowl championship.

A Redskins victory today could give Washington a more immediate reward: a virtually cinched playoff berth. It will be difficult this year for teams with five victories to miss the postseason.

And because both teams are playing so well, this game is the best thing that has happened to the NFL since the strike ended three weeks ago.

"It has all the earmarks of a big contest," Redskins quarterback Joe Theismann said. "People are getting excited for the first time since the strike ended. What we have to keep in mind is that no matter what happens, we still have four more weeks after this and those are important, too."

Even Dallas Coach Tom Landry has put his stamp of significance on this one. Landry says this is the type of regular-season game his team needs to win to prepare players for the playoffs.

Washington is the NFL's only unbeaten team after defeating Philadelphia last week, despite the first inconsistent showing of the short season by the offense. The Redskins have many other impressive numbers: seven straight victories over two seasons, 12 victories in their last 15 games, six in a row at RFK.

Dallas (3-1) is coming off one of its typical performances, a 31-14 rout of Cleveland Thanksgiving Day. The time off has served the Cowboys well in the past; they are 13-1 in games after Thanksgiving.

There is more than one key to the game. Dallas wants to keep Theismann from scrambling ("He moves so well, it's tough to tear his head off," defensive tackle Randy White said). The Redskins don't want to commit a lot of turnovers and they want to control Tony Dorsett.

But the one Redskin player who could make the difference has hardly played at all this season: Joe Washington.

Gibbs keeps promising to use Washington, his team's quickest runner and leading receiver last season. But Washington played sparingly the last two weeks after recovering from a knee injury, even though he has looked sharp in practice.

"Even if it rains Sunday, Joe will play more, but John (Riggins) has gotten us this far and we're going with him," said Gibbs, reluctant to make personnel changes when his team is playing well.

Theismann remembers the game at Dallas last season, when Joe Washington gained 84 yards and caught four passes for another 47 yards, all in the first half, before being sidelined by bruised ribs.

"He can do so many things for us after he gets the football, he showed that down there last year," Theismann said. "You can't substitute for his quickness. I know he is champing at the bit, ready to play."

Theismann believes the game will be determined by how well his offensive line holds up against the Dallas front four.

"The line has settled in and played very well so far," he said. "They have some confidence now. The key to their defense is their front four. The rest of their personnel changes, but as long as the front four stays the same, their defense will be the same. The line gives the defense a chance to gamble and cover people tight. And a good rush doesn't give the quarterback enough time to set up and look around like he should."