The history book snapped shut on the Washington Redskins yesterday.

So did the Chicago Bears. Because the Bears defeated the Redskins, 23-19, in a National Football Conference semifinal game at RFK Stadium, the team that appeared in the last two Super Bowls won't make it a record-tying three in Palo Alto, Calif., on Jan. 20.

Instead, the Bears will play in San Francisco in the NFC title game Sunday. After Chicago (11-6 overall) had won its first playoff game since 1963, Coach Mike Ditka turned melodramatic, proclaiming, "I just think it's time for the City of Chicago to take a bow."

A locker room away, the Redskins (11-6) stared into a hollow winter. No bows here, not after their first playoff loss at RFK Stadium in eight games.

"It's a bitter feeling, kind of empty," all-pro tackle Joe Jacoby said. "I can't believe there's still two games left in this season and we're not going to play in them. Maybe we've just gotten spoiled."

What really spoiled a game and a season for the Redskins was not scoring the seven points they needed for a victory in the fourth quarter, despite taking possession three times in Chicago territory.

"The season's over," linebacker Mel Kaufman said, "but life goes on. The Super Bowl is history and now our rematch with the 49ers will never be."

"How hard is it to go to three straight Super Bowls?" wondered defensive end Tony McGee. (Only Miami, in the early 1970s, has been to three straight Super Bowls). "I guess we'll never be able to answer that now."

Perhaps in the months to come, these Redskins will fully realize that defeat came for numerous reasons. Defeat came because, quite simply, the Hogs could not cope with Chicago's league-best defense. Quarterback Joe Theismann was sacked seven times yesterday, making it 21 in three weeks.

Matters weren't helped when right guard Ken Huff fractured the fibula and strained ankle ligaments in his left leg and was replaced late in the first quarter. It barely seemed to matter that running back John Riggins converted on that fourth and one on the play.

In Huff's absence, tackle Mark May moved to guard and Morris Towns, who hadn't played a down all season and who was just activated from the injured list, entered at tackle.

"It was our darkest day," said May, as the Hogs' spokesman. And Towns said, "I got confused on what I was supposed to do . . .The problems I had were on knowing which man to get. How many sacks did I give up? Well, I know I got two holding penalties against me that would have been sacks."

There were other reasons for this loss: the Redskins' defense was duped by a fake reverse and allowed running back Walter Payton to throw a 19-yard touchdown pass to tight end Pat Dunsmore for a 10-3 lead. "When I saw the flanker did not have the ball on the reverse," said free safety Curtis Jordan, who had Dunsmore in single coverage on the play, "I knew our lights were out."

Ditka said, "I guaranteed when we called the play that it was going to be a touchdown."

Defeat came to the Redskins also because, even though their offense mounted two 13-play drives to start the game, it managed only three points. One drive ended when running back Joe Washington was hit by safety Todd Bell and lost a fumble at the Chicago 30. "Pretty wicked hit," Washington said. "I figure I will probably make the Bears' highlight film."

Defeat came because cornerback Darrell Green overran a tackle of wide receiver Willie Gault that allowed Gault, the Bear with gold medal speed, to turn a 10-yard play into a 75-yard touchdown escape. This gave the Bears a 16-3 lead on the third play of the third quarter.

Defeat came because, after the Redskins had closed to 16-10 on the first of Riggins' two one-yard touchdowns early in the third quarter, strong safety Ken Coffey was penalized for running into punter Dave Finzer on the Washington 35. This gave the Bears a first down at the 30.

Three plays later, quarterback Steve Fuller threw a 16-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Dennis McKinnon. The beaten defender was Coffey and the Chicago lead was 23-10 with 4:05 left in the period.

Coffey denied any wrongdoing on the penalty, saying he was blocked into the punter. "I'm sure the videotapes will vindicate me," Coffey said. "It was a good job of acting (by Finzer)."

Referee Fred Silva said Coffey was not blocked into Finzer. "The player's (Coffey's) direction was unchanged by the blocker. There was no question about the play," Silva said.

Finzer just smiled. "(Coffey) nicked me," the punter said. "I won't say anything more, otherwise I'll get a call from the commissioner."

Most painful of all, the Redskins' offense -- which had used Riggins' second scoring run to pull Washington to 23-17 with five seconds left in the third period -- needed just one touchdown and an extra point in the fourth period to take the lead. But it couldn't deliver after the defense and some nifty punt returns by Mike Nelms gave them prime field position on three occasions. The Redskins began drives on the Chicago 36, the Chicago 40 and the Chicago 45. Still no points generated by the offense.

One drive (from the 36) ended when Theismann, in a shotgun position created especially to counter the Bears' blitzes, fumbled center Rick Donnalley's snap. Theismann recovered at the Chicago 40 (a loss of six yards), but the Redskins were out of field goal range.

On the Redskins' next drive, Theismann was sacked twice, then threw an incompletion. Again, the Redskins punted. Time was slipping.

On the third drive, the Redskins arranged for Mark Moseley to attempt a 41-yard field goal that could have cut the deficit to 23-22 with 6:11 to play. (The Bears had yielded a safety intentionally several minutes earlier, by instructing Finzer to step out of the end zone rather than risk a punt block.)

But Moseley's kick went wide left. The score remained 23-19. "I just pulled it," he said. "I hit it good. I couldn't believe it when I looked up."

The Redskins had one final realistic shot at victory. With 2:40 to play, Theismann began a drive from his 19, needing a touchdown for victory. He was sacked once by end Richard Dent (three sacks) and threw three incompletions.

Even though the Bears took possession at the Washington 19, the Redskins' defense held firm and created one final change of possession. This allowed Theismann eight seconds and two desperation passes that failed. Cornerback Mike Richardson intercepted Theismann's final deep throw toward wide receiver Art Monk (10 catches for 122 yards) and, as a slow rain fell, the Redskins did, too.

"I wish I had a little more time," said Theismann, who completed only 22 of 42 for 292 yards. "It's been a long three weeks . . . Their defense isn't all that hard to figure out. It's their ability to shed blocks and keep coming. They rank No. 1 for a reason, because they are."

Perhaps there was sad symbolism that the Redskins opted away from the running game in the final period, steering away from Riggins (50 yards on 21 carries) and heading for the passing game. This is a drastic departure from the way these Redskins have done things in their Riggo-Drill/Super Bowl past.

But this was a different season and a different team. "In the fourth quarter, we took a couple shots with John (actually only one) but didn't get anything," Coach Joe Gibbs said. "And I thought our passing was on a roll. I didn't have a confident feeling with the running game at that point. I was leaning to the left at that point (with the line changes). I was leery to go to the right."

The Redskins' said they were not surprised that the Bears blitzed, but rather in how they blitzed. Gibbs said he expected the Bears to blitz mostly inside linebackers, but got the outside linebackers more often than not.

It's been a difficult year for the Hogs, what with injury and change and even abject failure. Veteran tackle George Starke, 36, did not play, Gibbs said, simply because his knees ached too much.

"We were really rolling at the start," said May. "We had like six or eight chances to win today and we spit them all into the wind.

"Are the days of the Hogs' dominance over? I don't know. They may be numbered," May said. "You can't go on forever. I know we'll try. We'll make some adjustments next year."

Next year. Hard words. "It was frustrating," Jacoby said. "We didn't know where they were coming from. We thought we would have our man (blocked) and then we'd see Joe take another hit."

Somebody mentioned to defensive tackle Dave Butz, 34, that the Redskins have the oldest team in the league and that many offseason changes might be made. "A lot of the younger teams didn't get this far," Butz responded.

Lost in the wind were the facts that the Redskins gained 164 of their 336 net yards in the third quarter, when it seemed their offense had made the necessary adjustments to overcome a 10-3 halftime deficit, and that linebacker Rich Milot, with 3 1/2 sacks of Fuller, played a career-best game.

Instead, the focus was on gadgets and gaffes, sacks and a season at end. "Maybe I'll fly home to Texas and visit my mother," Coffey was saying. "It's been a while since I've had time to be in Texas in January."