It's not easy to understand the St. Louis Cardinals. As playoff contenders go, they're a little different, and the players and coaches are the first to admit it.

They have turned unpredictability into a virtue. They have basically ignored indifference from fans who, by and large, think Cardinals play baseball. And they are winning big games with young players who have never won them before.

One day after the Cardinals pulled the New York Giants out of first place in the NFC East with a 31-21 victory -- and put themselves one victory away from that spot -- Cardinals' offensive coordinator Rod Dowhower, an old buddy of Washington Redskins' Coach Joe Gibbs, tried to put everything into perspective.

"I guess you could say we are the Rodney Dangerfields of the NFL," he said. "People keep waiting for us to fall on our faces."

It's possible that will happen Sunday at RFK Stadium, when the Washington Redskins and Cardinals play for the NFC East title.

But don't count on it.

Don't count on anything with the Cardinals, who have played three distinct "seasons" within one. When the year began, a divisional title was a "dream," quarterback Neil Lomax said today. Then the Cardinals kick-started to 6-3, including a 26-24 victory over the Redskins in Week 8. Everyone was talking playoffs.

That ended when they lost their next three, miserably, giving up 16 turnovers and basically "self-destructing," Dowhower said. Now, they have won three in a row, and roll into RFK as one of the league's hottest teams.

Coach Jim Hanifan, in his weekly news conference this morning, wouldn't say that exactly.

"I think we're okay," he said of his team, 9-6 and tied with New York and Dallas, one game behind the Redskins. "But they have been to the last two Super Bowls."

The Cardinals, who have never been to a Super Bowl, are at a disadvantage in their pass protection, having lost left guard Terry Stieve with a broken right fibula. "Terry is the foundation of our offensive line," Lomax said. "Losing him is like having one of my fingers missing."

Doug Dawson, a rookie from Texas who played almost the entire game Sunday, will start in his place. He played well against the Giants.

Injuries have not hurt the Cardinals as they have the Redskins. St. Louis' problem has been inconsistency. Actually, this season has been a study of how an inexperienced team packed with talent matures.

The Cardinals have become a self-correcting machine. Consider the Giants' game. Three weeks before, in their first meeting, the New York defense ruined Lomax's day, forcing four interceptions and allowing only 10 points, the Cardinals' lowest total of the season.

Fast-forward to last Sunday. Lomax doesn't throw an interception, and is willing to accept short passes when top receiver Roy Green is not open. Then, when he gets rare one-on-one coverage with Green, he finds him for a touchdown on a fourth-down gamble.

"We're to a point where we can adjust a lot better than before," Lomax said. "I'm reading coverages better, and so are our receivers. Before, I had a tendency to throw long . . . . Now, I'll drop the ball off. I'll take what I can get and let's go on with the next play."

Nonchalance was not the rule early in the season.

"Our winning streak was an unusual streak," Dowhower said. "It was a real high, followed by a real low.

"There was so much excitement, this was such a neat thing to happen to them, and it happened so suddenly. Then, I think we just ran out of gas. All this success we had (Dallas, Chicago, Washington and Philadelphia fell in a row) used up all our energy, and we had to recharge ourselves."

They have, obviously. But there is one lingering problem. The Giants' game sold out less than an hour before kickoff. "Heck, I don't know what it takes," Lomax said today, "but it adds to the frustrations. What an important day it was, and we didn't sell out (until the last minute)."

Season ticket sales for this season were the lowest they've ever been, and the local newspapers played the news of pitcher Bruce Sutter signing with the Atlanta Braves last week much bigger than the Cardinals' victory over the Giants.

"It might be a little surprising that we've attained a goal that we set out to do because of the fact we're in the same division as the Redskins and the Cowboys and the Giants," Lomax said.

"It's difficult just to be competitive because, out of five teams, two or three always go to the playoffs."

The Cardinals are not usually in a position to be one of them. Until now.

"To get ourselves in the situation we're in now," Lomax said, "is a dream cone true."