Defensive end Dexter Manley calls it "our ticket to the Super Bowl."

Certainly, a Redskins' victory over St. Louis today in RFK Stadium (WDVM-TV-9, WMAL-630, 1 p.m.) would give Washington a decided edge over the rest of the National Football Conference when the playoffs begin next weekend.

If the Redskins win, they will have the home-field advantage for every NFC playoff game. How much is that worth?

"Five points or more," Coach Joe Gibbs said. "That's saying that a home field is worth three points normally. If that's true, ours has got to be more. With our fans and with the grass field, there is a difference coming in here to play for other teams."

"A lot," said quarterback Joe Theismann. "You want to start off the playoffs with an edge, and that's what the home-field advantage gives us. It would be great to sit here at home and let everyone come here and beat us. It's different playing in RFK, with the noise and all. Teams know that."

Even if the Redskins (7-1) lose, they still could be seeded first in the NFC playoff field. But Minnesota would have to beat Dallas (6-2) Monday night, something Washington doesn't expect.

If the Cowboys win and the Redskins don't, Dallas would get the No. 1 seed and Washington No. 2. In that case, the Redskins would be the host team in every playoff game that doesn't include the Cowboys.

The Redskins probably won't know until after the Monday night game whom they will play next week. It likely will be Minnesota or San Francisco, but Detroit and Chicago also are possibilities.

A victory at the end of this most improbable regular season would give the Redskins their best record since 1942, when they were 10-1. Of course, an asterisk has to be attached to this year's accomplishment, considering the players strike that shortened the season from its scheduled 16 games.

"The thing is," Gibbs said, "we've been tied or alone on top the NFC all season. We want to stay there for one more game. It would be a shame to blow it now."

The Cardinals (5-3) have some extra incentive, too. A victory would put them among the conference's top four teams, which would mean a first-round home game. And what opponent wants to play in St. Louis in early January?

St. Louis, which is 4-0 on the road this year, presents another unusual hurdle for Washington. The Cardinals and Cowboys are the only teams with winning records on the Redskins' schedule this season. And the Redskins already have lost to Dallas, 24-10, although they beat the Cardinals in St. Louis, 12-7, when Mark Moseley kicked four field goals. In all, Redskins opponents have a combined record of 35-37, a statistic critics use when pointing out that Washington has yet to beat an elite team.

These are two NFC franchises on the upswing. Like the Redskins, the Cardinals have been able to win while undergoing a major roster transition, one of the most difficult accomplishments in sports.

Since 1980, the Cardinals have had 28 roster changes, including 13 new starters plus a new punter and new place kicker. The most notable change, of course, was the switch from Jim Hart to Neil Lomax at quarterback. But as the Redskins found out in the first game, Hart is still capable of playing well as a substitute.

That presents Washington with an interesting dilemma. If the Redskins accomplish their No. 1 priority by shutting off the Cardinals' running game (Ottis Anderson is the only back to gain 100 yards against the Redskins all season) and force the Cardinals to pass more, that would force Lomax out and bring on Hart.

Washington is playing more impressively on defense every week. The Redskins have limited their last two opponents to less than 200 total yards each, the first time they've accomplished that in a decade. They are giving up only 16 points a game and, since Philadelphia scored 34 in the opener, that average has been only 13. The Redskins' offense last week finally stopped relying almost exclusively on Moseley's field goal accuracy by scoring three touchdowns against New Orleans. That offense, third in the NFC, could have some slight changes today. With No. 3 receiver Virgil Seay hobbled by a sore hip, either Alvin Garrett or tight end Clint Didier will take his spot on passing situations. Gibbs also could use Art Monk for Seay, and give Monk's in-motion duties to running back Nick Giaquinto.

Giaquinto could be busy all afternoon. Kick returner Mike Nelms (pulled leg muscle) isn't expected to play, except in emergencies. Giaquinto will return punts and kickoffs for the first time since 1980, when he was with Miami.

The Cardinals have excellent special teams, led by returner Stump Mitchell. It was Mitchell who seemingly gave the Cardinals an early lead in St. Louis with an 80-yard punt return, only to have the play nullified by a penalty.

The Redskins' special teams are third in the NFL in both punt and kickoff return differential. And considering both Nelms and Moseley made the Pro Bowl, they probably can argue they are the best overall.

Moseley, of course, still has his field goal streak. He's made 23 straight and says he rarely misses even in practice.

"We'll kick four field goals as a team three days a week and I might miss one or two a week, at the most," he said. "I never want to miss. That's what this is all about now. I want to keep my concentration so good that everything goes through."

The game officially is a sellout after the last of the 3,000 available tickets were purchased.