Mel Kaufman dreamed about this Dallas game the other night. "We won, of course," he said with a smile. "Otherwise, it would have been a nightmare."

Kaufman probably should have trouble sleeping this week. One of seven free agent starters, he is only two years removed from playing at Cal Poly-San Luis Obispo.

"I'm excited about this game but I don't feel nervous," he said. "Everyone else is so relaxed that you get relaxed, too . . . I never dreamed this would happen. The closest I've ever been to this big a game was when I was 12 years old and I played electric football. I hate to say this, but Dallas was my favorite team then. They always won the big game in electric football."

Kaufman has played well as a starter at left linebacker, moving in when Monte Coleman hurt a shoulder the first week after the end of the strike. His performance cushioned the loss of the talented Coleman, but that has been a pattern all year with this Redskin team. A starter gets hurt, a free agent steps in to help out.

"Maybe people are surprised that we are remaining this calm about this game," Kaufman said, "but we don't look at ourselves as free agents. I've been a starter now for a while and I feel I've done a good job. Just because I'm a free agent, that doesn't mean I'm not capable."

Coach Joe Gibbs constantly is being asked how this blue-collar team, with so many relatively unknown players, could have gone so far this season, and handled its success so well. One of the reasons seems to be the way he has convinced his players to have faith in their abilities, even a few days before the NFC title game.

In many ways, the Redskins are a football cliche come to life. Coaches talk about getting 100 percent effort, about having players believe in themselves and their teammates, about receiving contributions from every player on the team. Usually, it's no more than talk. But not with this team.

"We've got players with good intelligence who adapt well to circumstances and who understand that they have to play emotionally every week for us to win," Gibbs said. "They've got a lot of character. There is a chemistry within the team that allows us to play well every week. We've got good people who like each other. All those things are really important to what we do.

"They know that each has to play well for us to win. That's why a Nick Giaquinto and an Alvin Garrett can step in when Art Monk gets hurt. Or a Mel Kaufman for a Monte Coleman. Some teams can get by on a core of great players. We can't."

Gibbs has given his little-known players confidence by using them only in situations that they can handle best. Much like Don Shula, he and his staff have a feel for personnel, fitting each player into the team-wide puzzle. And the selections are made with team chemistry in mind. Athletes with ability but questionable attitudes have been cut instead of releasing less-gifted players with pleasing personalities.

"Me nervous? No, at least not now," said Giaquinto, the too-slow halfback-receiver who has a knack for making pressure catches. "I think being a free agent and trying to survive gives you some toughness to handle these situations. You survive being cut a couple of times and you can deal with almost anything."

Even Dallas Week.