In the fourth week of the season, the Federals finally won, a 22-16 overtime victory in the rain that ended with Kim McQuilken throwing a pass to Joey Walters for the winning score. As the players came off the field, soaked and mud-encrusted, there was hope that the team would continue improving and winning.

That scenario, however, never happened. The Federals are 2-13.

It happened, instead, to the Michigan Panthers, the Federals' opponents on that rainy day. After beginning the season as one of the most poorly regarded teams in the league, the Panthers have won eight of their last 10 games and are battling Tampa Bay for the wild-card spot in the U.S. Football League playoffs.

So while the Federals have had the rare pleasure of a week's practice after a winning performance in Phoenix last Saturday, they face an opponent tonight (8 p.m., WJLA-TV-7, WMAL-AM) in Pontiac, Mich., that is as hungry as it is strong. McQuilken made good on his promise of victory last week, but asked if he would make a similar guarantee for the Michigan game, he smiled and said, "I'm not sure I'm ready to do that."

In midseason, the Panthers signed three NFL players, offensive tackle Ray Pinney of the Pittsburgh Steelers and running backs Cleo Miller of the Minnesota Vikings and Terry Miller of the Cleveland Browns. Many have pointed to those signings as the primary reason for Michigan's success, but while all three play frequently, only Pinney starts.

Like the league's best team, the Philadelphia Stars, the Panthers have built their team not by isolated signings or by surrounding a single superstar with a supporting cast of bit players. Instead they have sought good, if not superb, performers at as many positions as possible. And they have done so through an intelligent and aggressive use of the draft and free agent signings.

Take John Corker. After a brilliant career as a linebacker at Oklahoma State, he went to the Houston Oilers in the draft in 1980. Corker played behind Robert Brazile and Ted Washington in Houston and frequently expressed his displeasure with his lot there.

After the Oilers released Corker early last season, Michigan Coach Jim Stanley signed him. The move may have been Michigan's best. His teammates call him Sack Man, and with good reason. Corker's 22 quarterback sacks leads the USFL.

Against the Federals, Corker knocked McQuilken to the mud five times, and afterward the quarterback said, "Every time I looked up he was in my face." Against New Jersey on May 16, the fleet 6-foot-6, 240-pound linebacker dumped Bobby Scott six times.

While Corker leads the defense, the league's third-leading passer, Bobby Hebert, directs the offense. His primary receivers, tight end Mike Cobb and Anthony Carter, a highly touted, highly paid rookie, could wreak havoc with Washington's inconsistent defensive backfield. And behind an improved offensive line, running back Ken Lacy is just 70 yards short of 1,000.

With quarterback Mike Hohensee and wide receiver Mike Holmes out with injuries, the Federals are likely to continue with a very controlled offense. In his last two starts, McQuilken has completed 39 passes, 29 of them to running backs. The running game has shown promise. Through the first 10 games, the Federals averaged 69 yards per game on the ground but in the past five games that average has risen to 169 yards.

Nevertheless, McQuilken was wise to forego predictions for tonight's outing in the Silverdome. Not only is Michigan a far better team, it also has a greater incentive to win. The margin could be big. Because points scored is a tie-breaking method for playoff spots, Michigan will try to score as much as possible with no apologies.