Since 1976, the St. Louis Cardinals have been the fodder that has fattened the Washington Redskins, losing 14 times in the last 16 meetings, including the past five.

However, when Washington turns left at the Gateway Arch and heads into Busch Stadium Sunday at 1 p.m. (WDVM-TV-9), it will face the most potent St. Louis team in nearly a decade, while dealing with a wide receiver known as "Jet Stream" and the distinct possibility of a rainstorm.

"They've always been a good team, but they've always self-destructed against us," Redskins middle linebacker Neal Olkewicz said. "It doesn't look like that will happen this time."

Coach Joe Gibbs has told his 5-2 team to forget that they are 3 1/2 point favorites and to instead realize that a loss would pull the 4-3 Cardinals -- and perhaps the Cowboys and the Giants, both also 4-3 -- into a congested pack of coleaders in the NFC Eastern Division. With five consecutive victories, the Redskins currently sit alone in first place.

"I'm telling our guys that if the other teams in the division see us win this game they'll say, 'We'll have a tough time catching them.' This game will make every game after this a lot harder or a lot easier for us," said Gibbs.

With a victory Sunday, Gibbs would equal the club record .735 regular-season winning percentage that was established by the team's first coach, Ray Flaherty (47-16-3 in 1937-42). Since coming to Washington in 1981, Gibbs is 35-13 in the regular season.

The Cardinals started toward the heights only two weeks ago. After a 2-3 start, the Cardinals' offense has exploded.

The last two weeks carried St. Louis to victories over Dallas (31-20) and Chicago (38-21). Quarterback Neil Lomax, expected to start Sunday despite having fluid drained from his throwing elbow late this week, merely completes passes to wide receiver Roy Green and lets the "Jet Stream" do his thing.

Against the Colts, all-pro Green caught eight passes for 183 yards, then had an eight-catch, 189-yard effort against Dallas and six catches for 166 against the Bears.

The Cardinals have been succesful lately because of Green's excellence, because of the continued development of Lomax, who has not passed for less than 265 yards in a game this season, and because of the resurgence of running back Ottis Anderson (467 yards and four touchdowns). St. Louis Coach Jim Hanifan says, "I don't think people will look at us now and think we're a cakewalk or think that they can just waltz in here and pummel us."

The question is: Can the Cardinals' defense slow the Redskins? St. Louis has proven equally vulnerable to the run and the pass, ranking 18th in the league in both.

"I look at the game with three objectives in mind," said Hanifan, who realizes how crucial it is for Lomax to play, with two rookies (Rick McIvor and Kyle Mackey) behind him. "Offensively, we have to put points on the board which may force them to alter their game plan. Defensively, we can't have (John) Riggins gaining 160 yards and we can't allow (Joe) Theismann to get the big play."

Matters are made worse for the Cardinals' defense in that both starting safeties are injured and listed as questionable (50 percent chance they will play). Strong safety Leonard Smith has a knee injury and free safety Benny Perrin was hospitalized Friday night with an infected elbow that was caused by constant AstroTurf burns.

Just as surely as the Redskins' defense must contain Green, the offense must establish the run with Riggins. After all, Lomax (12 scoring passes, five interceptions this season) and Green can't score without the ball.

Meanwhile, Theismann -- who likely will move past former quarterback Sammy Baugh on Sunday and into second place in club records for career completions (1,710) and attempts (3,017), trailing only Sonny Jurgensen in both categories -- should have more than enough time to throw.

The Redskins seemed relaxed at Redskin Park this week. They kidded reserve quarterback Jim Hart, the 18-year Cardinal and first-year Redskin, about all of the media requests for interviews with him this week. And when Riggins, still bothered by lower back pains, exited the locker room to participate in the latter part of Thursday's practice, his teammates momentarily halted the workout and awarded him a mock ovation.

"I think winning breeds confidence," Olkewicz said.

Apparently, winning also breeds more shuffling with the Redskins defense. At strong safety, there has been a platoon between starter Ken Coffey (pass) and Tony Peters (run). Free safety Curtis Jordan has been replaced on many passing (nickel) situations since he broke his thumb three weeks ago and has been wearing a fiberglass splint that makes catching the ball more difficult. In nickel situations, the Redskins have been using four cornerbacks (including Anthony Washington and Ricky Smith) and safety Coffey.

Meanwhile, now that linebacker Rich Milot (bone chip removed from elbow nearly a month ago) is gradually being phased back into the lineup, Olkewicz is playing less. The middle linebacker was replaced by Milot in second-and-long situations last week, while Monte Coleman played in Milot's right side spot for the entire game.

And, with defensive end Dexter Manley still listed as questionable with a sprained ankle, veteran Tom Beasley (eight tackles, one sack) again is expected to start. Manley will test his ankle in warmups and may play on some passing downs.

Coffey says of all of the platooning/substituting, "You won't hear any complaints from me. I'm just happy to be playing. I won't mess with success."