One by one, the aces are returning to the Washington Redskins' deck.

Today, the Redskins used their fifth and final injury reserve move to reactivate running back Joe Washington, in time to play against the Minnesota Vikings at 9 p.m. EST Thursday (WJLA-TV-7).

Odds makers favor the Redskins by 11 points over the troubled Vikings (3-10) who, it seems, have used hot-air catcalls to keep the Metrodome roof inflated this season.

Over the past five days, the Redskins have reactivated from injured reserve all-pro receiver Charlie Brown, special teams captain Pete Cronan (who cleared waivers) and now Washington, who seems recovered from a strained knee.

The Redskins hope these players will give them a stretch-run lift. The Redskins are 8-5, tied for first place in the NFC East with Dallas and the New York Giants. After the Vikings, there will be no easy marks for the Redskins: they will play at Dallas, then at home against St. Louis to finish the regular season.

"When you get back all of the familiar faces, it adds confidence. You feel like you can do the things you're supposed to do, the things you used to do," said Washington, known for his pass-catching ability.

To make roster space for the veteran running back, the Redskins released running back Rick Kane, who lost a fumbled kickoff to Buffalo in the Redskins' 41-14 victory Sunday. Kane played mostly on special teams.

It remains uncertain how much Washington, who hasn't played in 10 weeks, will play Thursday. Running back John Riggins practiced today at Redskin Park, but continues to be bothered by lower back pains. Although Riggins is listed as probable (75 percent chance he will play Thursday), Coach Joe Gibbs said after the team's second and final practice of the week, "I just don't know about John. He's still sore."

The consensus at Redskin Park is that Riggins will not play any more than necessary against the Vikings, who have won once in the last eight games. Privately, players say that Riggins (1,052 yards this season) is saving his best for Dallas, St. Louis and, they hope, the playoffs.

Gibbs said that rookie Keith Griffin would replace Riggins against Minnesota. Gibbs added that Washington will back up Griffin on running downs and Jeff Moore on passing downs.

"We will pick our spots with Joe, just like we did with Charlie Brown last week," Gibbs said.

It might not matter how much Riggins and Washington play Thursday. Remember how meek Buffalo's defense was last week? The Vikings' defense is worse, ranked last in the league. These Vikings are equal-opportunity defenders: they are terrible against the pass, worse against the run.

The Vikings' defense has a league-low 20 quarterback sacks and is tied for last with Buffalo in allowing 27 scoring passes. The run defense has permitted a league-worst 4.7 yards per carry.

It hasn't been an easy season for Minnesota's first-year coach, Les Steckel. His injury-ravaged offensive line has given up 51 sacks, so you can expect a big sack night for the Redskins, who are tied with Chicago with a league-best and club-record 55 sacks.

Now that the Redskins have had three games this season in which they achieved seven quarterback sacks, end Charles Mann says the defense ought to raise its goal of three sacks per game.

"Maybe we ought to make it five per game," Mann said. "I think as you change and improve, maybe you should improve your goals, too."

In a 42-21 loss at Denver two weeks ago, Minnesota's nimble quarterback, Tommy Kramer, reinjured his shoulder as a result of a sack. He likely is out for the season.

Then, in a 34-3 loss Sunday to Chicago, reserve Archie Manning was sacked 11 times. On the last sack, he aggravated a lower back injury.

Enter Wade Wilson, the fourth-year, third-string quarterback. Steckel has decided to take a peek at the future by starting Wilson against the Redskins. He has completed half of 40 passes this season, for 185 yards, no touchdowns and two interceptions.

Add to this the fact that running back Ted Brown, the team's leading receiver (46 catches) and second-leading runner (442 yards to rookie Alfred Anderson's 681) won't play because of a shoulder injury. Add the fact that starting linebacker Fred McNeil (ribs) likely won't play Thursday and that the team's best defensive back, Willie Teal, is limited to nickel downs because of a knee injury.

Then you will realize that maybe the Redskins' injury situation isn't so bad. particularly since defensive tackle Dave Butz (intestinal virus) and right tackle Mark May (neck and back injuries) are expected to start Thursday.

And even though linebacker Mel Kaufman (jammed neck) is listed as questionable (50-50), he has the wherewithal to crack, "Yeah, but they've been calling me questionable around here for years." He would be replaced by Monte Coleman.

The Redskins still know how to laugh. Take Cronan, for instance. He is the joker added to the team's deck. Tuesday, he cleared league-wide waivers. Before his return became final, teammates playfully packed all of Cronan's locker room belongings, including his nameplate, into a cardboard box and placed the box outside of the locker room. They told Cronan he had been signed by another team.

Even Cronan, in his seventh season, had to laugh. At his sage best, he said of his clearing waivers, "There was a classified ad placed in every paper in the country about me. It said: 'For Hire: hit specialist and motivational speaker, graduate Boston College, 1977.' I'm glad the Redskins answered it."

The Redskins are glad Washington is back, too. If the Redskins reach the playoffs, they would receive one more injured reserve reactivation. It's not even certain whether the team would use that move, what with center Jeff Bostic and rookie defensive tackle Bob Slater out for the season with knee injuries and with the uncertainty about how much wide receiver Alvin Garrett, tackle Mo Towns, safety Tony Peters or defensive end Todd Liebenstein would add to the team.

Last week, the Redskins finally were able to incorporate the three-wide-receiver formation that placed Art Monk, Calvin Muhammad and Brown in the lineup at the same time.

Now, imagine Washington, coming out of the backfield, added to that formation. "It will be interesting," Brown said. "Very."