For the second time in two weeks, Washington Redskins running back John Riggins has entered Sibley Memorial Hospital for rest and traction to help decrease continuing pains in his lower back and hips.

Team officials said that Riggins, 35, the league's oldest running back, made the decision to enter the hospital, which he did yesterday. Officials said it is possible Riggins won't be released until Saturday.

Trainer Bubba Tyer indicated Riggins still will be listed as probable (75 percent chance he will play) on the team's weekly injury report, for Sunday's game against the St. Louis Cardinals at RFK Stadium.

A victory in that game would earn the Redskins the NFC East title, a bye in the wild card-playoff round and home field advantage in the first-round playoff game.

In the meantime, Coach Joe Gibbs said he would have a playbook sent to Riggins at the hospital. And teammates seemed to feel nearly certain that Riggins will play Sunday. It's in his big-game nature, they say.

"I really don't expect to ever play a big game here without John Riggins," tight end Rick Walker said, speaking the team consensus. "He looked like he had been through a physical experience after the Dallas game Sunday, especially since he's the guy who is carrying the diamond in his hand.

"He's a big-money player and we've never won anything big without John. He'll be there."

As always, Gibbs took the conservative road. "(Riggins' absence yesterday) is definitely a backward step for us," he said. "I'm just waiting to see how John feels (Friday). Every other time that he hasn't practiced through Friday, he's had a tough time playing.

"John felt like this morning he was worse than he had been. I had felt like he might be better. I felt like he would be more rested. I was hoping that he could take work today.

"After talking to Bubba and the doctors, they felt like they would try to put John back in the hospital in traction and get him rest for a couple of days."

Riggins, who has rushed for 1,163 yards this season, has missed two of the last five games and had just three carries in a third, a 41-14 victory over Buffalo.

He declined to be interviewed over the phone yesterday, although he allowed Brent Musburger of CBS Sports to film a segment on him for the network's pregame show Sunday.

"I think it will be very important for John to be here (Friday)," Gibbs said. "A lot of the things we have put in (the game plan) and talked about, he just hasn't had a chance to go through them. It's important for him to go through those."

Although Gibbs often does not start a player who has not practiced during the week, he said yesterday that if Riggins is ready to play Sunday, he will start, regardless of whether he has practiced.

Riggins spent three days in traction at Sibley after the Redskins' 31-17 victory at Minnesota two weeks ago, a game in which Riggins did not play.

He returned with two weeks rest to rush for 111 yards and his 13th touchdown of the season in the 30-28 victory at Dallas.

Riggins ran for 98 yards and a touchdown on 32 carries in a 26-24 loss at St. Louis this season.

Of course, Riggins' missing practice has become an accepted fact this season at Redskin Park.

"I haven't seen anyone walking around with their chins on the ground today," kicker Mark Moseley said yesterday. And why not? "I'd put my money on it, that John will be running crazy on Sunday," he said.

Doctors have found Riggins' troubles to be caused by a lower lumbar sprain, along with bursitis in his hips. The latter, they say, has been caused by the hits received on the nearly 2,700 carries in his 13-season pro career.

In a July press conference in training camp at Carlisle, Pa., Riggins said he might play another season after this one, even though his two-year contract will expire after this season.

"It will all depend on what kind of year I have," Riggins said then. "I think everybody will know if this is my last year -- the fans, the coaches, myself. I think we'll all figure it out at about the same time."

Now, with each additional mention of Riggins' back pains, the rumbles grow a little louder that this might be his last season.

In fact, if the worst thing possible from the Redskins' perspective happens this weekend -- if the Los Angeles Rams beat San Francisco Friday night and the New York Giants defeat New Orleans Saturday and the Cardinals defeat the Redskins Sunday -- then Sunday's game could be Riggins' last.

"Physically, John is incredible," veteran free safety Mark Murphy said. "To be in as much pain as he has been in, and to play as well as he has, is amazing.

"The thing John has to think about is the risk of an injury that will affect him after he stops playing football.

"I think he would be foolish to go through another year like this. He'll probably have to see how he feels in the offseason. I'm sure he won't make any snap judgments.

"In terms of pride, he has already accomplished what any individual player ever could accomplish."

Take a peek in the league record book and you'll all but read Riggins' football biography: fifth in career rushing yardage (10,599 yards), third in career carries (2,690) and third in career touchdowns (107).

The Redskins will owe Riggins a fair sum of money upon his retirment from the team: $2.6 million, including deferred payments from his first contract with the team, signed in 1976.

Players talk of how Riggins seems to thrive on the camaraderie in the locker room. They think that such a love could very well keep him playing another year.

"He loves the camaraderie so much I think if they gave him a job as a groundskeeper, he might come back," Moseley said. And Murphy added, "He loves being a part of the team. You just don't get that type of feeling in a normal job."

There have even been whispers that the Redskins might benefit from signing Riggins for another season and deploying him only on short-yardage and goal-line plays, his specialty. It's only talk, of course.

Gibbs won't address such a possibility, saying he is concentrating on the season at hand. Riggins, of course, has not made mention of his plans for next season.

There seem to be two views of Riggins in the Redskin Park locker room. "If playing meant putting me in the hospital, I know I'd consider retirement," linebacker Mel Kaufman said, listing the first view.

Kaufman listed the consensus second view, too, when he said, "John is a leader on this team. I sense it more on the field than in the locker room.

"I see him taking some real mean shots on the field and that motivates me. I figure, 'If he can do it, then so can I.' "