By every stretch of the imagination, the Washington Redskins will reach a critical turning point Sunday at Soldier Field, the place where Walter Payton runs free and quarterback sacks mount fast.

The Redskins will play the Chicago Bears -- one of the NFL's two 3-0 teams -- at 1 p.m. EDT. "This is the biggest regular-season game in a long, long time," Coach Joe Gibbs said.

Put it this way: if the Redskins do win, they'll be 2-2 and able to banish thoughts of their past mishaps this season against Dallas, Philadelphia and Houston, in which it was proven that even a victory can be a mishap.

Most importantly, a victory Sunday would put the Redskins on equal or near-equal terms when they face St. Louis (now 2-1) next Monday night at RFK Stadium when the season moves into its second quarter.

If the Redskins lose to the Bears, they would be 1-3 and likely two games behind somebody in the NFC East (Dallas, St. Louis and/or the Giants), which would be a shocking distance after just four weeks.

As Redskins punter Jeff Hayes said, "To go 1-3 would be almost catastrophic. The people in town are already questioning us. That would make it worse. There's no panic now, but if we lost, there might be some panic in the organization next week."

Some Redskins nerves are frayed. A Sports Illustrated writer was at Redskin Park Friday, working on a story detailing the Redskins' slide. Quarterback Joe Theismann proceeded to lash at the writer because his magazine took a picture of Theismann and superimposed tape over his mouth -- without telling Theismann -- in a cover story early last season. Back then, Theismann was throwing more touchdown passes and giving fewer interviews.

Theismann has become the target of much criticism lately. In a Chicago newspaper, former Redskins quarterback Jim Hart (now a Bears radio commentator), was quoted with this recollection of how Redskins players view Theismann: "They respect him, but they don't like him . . . He's a strange man, that's all. But he's a good quarterback. I've never, ever said he wasn't a good quarterback."

Theismann has thrown seven interceptions and two scoring passes this season. However, Coach Joe Gibbs won't blame only No. 7 for making the Redskins' passing game rate as only the 23rd most proficient in the league.

"It's everybody, including the guy calling the plays -- me," Gibbs said.

"We know that some people have written us off already," Redskins defensive tackle Darryl Grant said. "We've just got to work twice as hard. The motto for every guy on this team Sunday will be, 'Whip the man in front of you.' "

The Bears appear to possess the very traits that could cause the Redskins trouble. The Redskins have a league-low minus-10 turnover differential. The Bears, on the other hand, are plus-five.

The Redskins' saving grace has been their ability to produce an average of 167 rushing yards per game, second best in the league (the 49ers average 176). However, these Bears rate best in the league at stopping the run, allowing 76 yards per game.

The Redskins have been nearly invisible in the third quarter this season, getting outscored, 16-0. The Bears have been pulverizing people once the second half begins. They have outscored opponents, 48-7, in the third quarter.

Simply, the Bears are streaking one way, the Redskins the other way. The Bears have had 10 days to rest and to recall how quarterback Jim McMahon replaced Steve Fuller in the third quarter to reverse a 10-9 Minnesota lead by throwing for touchdowns on his first two passes. Final from the Metrodome: Chicago 33, Minnesota 24.

Oddsmakers figure the Bears as six-point favorites Sunday. "They don't give us a prayer," Hayes said. "Sometimes, though, it's better to be underdogs."

The Redskins always seem to reach their moment of truth when they play the Bears. In 1981, the Redskins were 0-5 and about to fall off of Columbus' round earth. That's when they beat Chicago, 24-7, for the first win of the Gibbs era.

The victory reversed the season and it helped plenty that Payton, now the NFL's all-time career rushing leader, had injured his knee trying to keep his infant child from falling down stairs several days before the game. Payton ran only five times.

Last year, the Redskins faced the Bears in the playoffs after having overcome injuries and St. Louis to win the division title. They seemed headed to a third straight Super Bowl.

But the Bears won, 23-19, at RFK Stadium. Payton ran for 104 yards, but the main reason the Redskins lost was they allowed Theismann to be sacked seven times.

Grant says the Redskins have prepared for any trick Payton pass plays Sunday similar to the one he threw for a 19-yard score in last season's playoff game. Gibbs said the Redskins have added plays and ploys to try to avoid the wrath of the 46-defense of Buddy Ryan, the Bears' defensive coach. The 46 is the alignment in which eight men crowd the line and blitz frequently.

The Redskins, who will start R.C. Thielemann at right guard in place of Ken Huff, have sustained injuries to safety Tony Peters (back strain), special teams star Greg Williams (ankle sprain) and defensive end Dexter Manley (thigh bruise). Manley and Peters are expected to start and Manley said with confidence today, "What I do could determine the outcome . . . Some of the players are questioning their identity. I'm not."