Darryl Grant heard the sound first. "It sounded like a wisssp," he said.

Then he saw the ball. It was floating to his right, hanging and hanging. It was waiting, he thought, for someone to catch it.

"I knew then I had a chance at it," Grant said, thinking back to that moment midway through the fourth quarter of yesterday's Dallas-Washington game when defensive end Dexter Manley deflected Gary Hogeboom's screen pass.

"I decided," Grant said, "if I ran over there (toward the ball), I'll get it . . . Later, I wondered why there weren't people diving for the ball. I didn't think I'd be the only one going for it."

But he was. He moved his 260 pounds into the flat, reached up and caught the ball at the Cowboys' 10, then headed for the end zone. At the five, a would-be tackler bounced off his legs and Grant finished his touchdown romp.

"I remember some kind of bump," he said, "but it didn't faze me at all."

But his stunning play, which came 17 seconds after Mark Moseley's 29-yard field goal, bothered the Cowboys immensely. With that touchdown, they trailed by 31-17. Their hopes of winning this NFC title were almost ended.

Grant, drafted in the ninth round last year as an offensive guard, had been converted later in the season to defensive tackle, mainly because of his quickness. He has started the last seven weeks, since Perry Brooks hurt his knee against Dallas Dec. 5. Yesterday was his proudest moment in the NFL.

"I got into the end zone and kept thinking, 'I've scored, I've scored,' " he said. "I spiked the ball right away. How was it? I'd like to practice it more." Then he was overwhelmed by celebrating teammates, who knocked him to the ground. "That wore me out more than anything," he said, laughing.

The Cowboys will look back at this game and probably shake their heads. At the end, they were beaten on plays by an obscure late-round draft choice and by a former free agent rookie named Mel Kaufman, who set up Moseley's field goal with an over-the-shoulder interception in front of receiver Tony Hill at the Dallas 40. But all season long, the Redskins have been saved by their lesser-known players.

"It was the first time we had used this coverage," Kaufman said. "We call it 'bear man.' It's a combination of man and zone. My first responsibility is to stop anyone coming outside, in my zone. I kept watching Hogeboom. I saw him throw the ball and I went for it . . . I can't describe what a great feeling it is to make a play like that in a game like this."

Safety Mark Murphy said he was surprised how well Hogeboom (14 of 29, 162 yards) played for injured Danny White. "We thought we would pressure him by blitzing, but he handled it well, so we stopped doing that in the fourth period and started mixing up our coverages more," he said . . . The Cowboys began the game by not using their standard flex defense. They went back to the flex midway in the second period with the Redskins ahead, 14-3, then limited Washington to 49 yards until Kaufman's interception.