St. Louis Cardinals kicker Neil O'Donoghue didn't know how much time he had, except that it wasn't enough.

Snapper Carlos Scott couldn't hear the count because the crowd was too loud.

Holder Benny Perrin had no idea when the ball would hit his hands.

And wide receiver Danny Pittman, who had just caught a five-yard pass, was desperately trying to get off the field.

This was no way to try to kick the game-winning field goal, they realized, but they didn't have much choice.

"I'd rather have an opportunity and miss than not have one at all," O'Donoghue said.

His 50-yard attempt as the clock struck zero reached for the goal post, then drifted off to the left, leaving the Cardinals with a 29-27 loss to the Washington Redskins yesterday at RFK Stadium.

"I felt like I hit it well," O'Donoghue said. "I gave it a good lick. The distance was good, but it just tailed off."

The Cardinals' final try at victory -- and the NFC East title -- was born out of chaos.

For the second time in the final eight minutes of the game, the Cardinals had put together a masterful drive.

The first was a six-play, 94-yard drive in 1 minute 46 seconds to take the lead, 27-26.

The second began with 1:27 left, after Mark Moseley's 37-yard field goal gave the Redskins the lead, 29-27.

The Cardinals, without a timeout, moved to the Washington 38, facing third and nine with 25 seconds remaining.

Their plan was to throw to Roy Green, who caught eight passes for 196 yards, near the sideline. But he wasn't open, and Pittman was.

Problem was, Pittman was in the middle of the field. So when he was tackled by Rich Milot at the Washington 33, the clock kept running.

"Pittman just came clear, and Neil (Lomax) saw him and took it," Coach Jim Hanifan said in the hushed St. Louis locker room. "He was going for the first down. We wanted the first down."

A first down would have given Lomax a chance to throw the ball out of bounds to set up the field goal. Instead, there was the no-frills field goal try.

O'Donoghue, who in the first Washington-St. Louis game kicked a 21-yard field goal for a 26-24 victory, says a field-goal team usually needs 15 seconds to set up.

The last time he looked at the clock, as he ran out, he saw :09.

"Everybody did an excellent job of just getting out there," he said.

The Washington fans, counting down the seconds in glee, actually did the Cardinals a favor. "I heard the crowd . . . 2 . . . 1 . . . the snap came on 1," O'Donoghue said.

"I didn't get a good look (when he set up)," he said. "You like to line it up. But under those circumstances, I think the line especially did an excellent job. Unfortunately, the end result was not what we wanted."

Because there was no communication among the line, holder and kicker, things were far from perfect.

But O'Donoghue, whose longest field goal this season was 52 yards in a 37-7 victory over Buffalo, kicked the ball long enough, just not on target.

Yet, the Cardinals (9-7), who missed the playoffs after the best season in Hanifan's five years as head coach, found solace in the way they returned from a 23-7 halftime deficit.

"We gave it a good try," said Lomax, who completed 37 of 46 passes for 468 yards, the most passing yards ever against the Redskins.

"This was a great game," he continued. "It was just so exciting to see us come back."

As Green said, "At least we had the last word on the field goal."

The Cardinals played poorly in the first half, rushing for nine yards on 11 tries. "I think we were a little nervous," Lomax said. "It was really our first big game."

They prospered in the second half by eschewing the run, rushing just twice in the third quarter, when they scored 10 points.

Ottis Anderson's totals tell the story of the Cardinals' game plan: He gained 24 yards on 12 rushes, but caught 12 passes for 124 yards. At least half of those, he said, were improvisations by Lomax.

"If they shake down your running game, you've got to go into the air," Anderson said. "Their defense was taking away our deep passes, so I got the drop-offs."

When the Cardinals got the ball for their final drive at 1:27, they figured they had a pretty good chance to win.

"We had done it just before (on the 94-yard drive)," Hanifan said. "And we damn near did it again."

Coming close wasn't good enough for the Cardinals, but, surprisingly, the effort was not lost on them, either.

"To do this against a team like Washington is exciting," Green said. "They have been the big kids on the block the last three years or so."

The Cardinals recently haven't even been living in the same neighborhood.

"When you lose, it means a lot how you lose," Anderson said. "You can have a positive loss, and I think we did."