By midnight or so tonight at RFK Stadium, one of two things will be true: there finally will be a new order emerging in the NFC East, or, the Washington Redskins will have pulled themselves together to see another Sunday.

Youth, optimism and winning (that's the St. Louis Cardinals) meet age, concern and losing (none other than the good ol' Redskins) at 9 in a Monday Night Football game.

For the Redskins, it's like "Dynasty" with a subtitle: "Lost Forever or Found for Another Week."

"This is as much of a must-win as I've been a part of," Redskins Coach Joe Gibbs said yesterday. "We sure need it."

For as long as the Redskins (1-3) have been on top of the NFC Eastern Division, the Cardinals (3-1) have been closing in on them. The chase is on, and there are many who believe the Cardinals will overtake the struggling Redskins for good tonight, in spite of an overly generous defense, sixth worst in the NFL.

It almost happened in the last game of last season. If Neil O'Donoghue had not missed a hurried 50-yard field goal as time ran out in the Redskins' 29-27 victory, the Cardinals would have won the division and left the Redskins clawing for a wild card.

And that was back when the Redskins had a passing game and special teams on which to rely.

Now, mired in what some Redskins call their season-long "slump," they face the totally unappealing prospects of falling to 1-4, and 0-3 within the division.

"Four losses would not cost us the world," said Gibbs, "but four losses would put us in a very big hole."

By all accounts, the Cardinals are the team that could, would and, possibly, should bury the Redskins. The oddsmakers favor St. Louis by 1 1/2 points.

"We have some very good talent on this team," said St. Louis quarterback Neil Lomax, "but we haven't proven anything yet."

Yet. Lomax, who at 26 is now "seasoned," probably was talking specifically about the playoffs, last seen by this team in the 1982 strike season, and, before that, in 1975.

But they have proven quite a bit to the Redskins over the past several years. Although Washington has won 10 of the last 12 games in this series, and the Cardinals last won here seven years ago, St. Louis is a team of many talents, most specifically the dreaded big play.

Already, it has hurt the Redskins this season: Mike Quick down the sidelines for Philadelphia, Willie Gault from his one for Chicago . . .

"The big play concerns us," said Richie Petitbon, Redskins assistant head coach-defense.

And, in the case of the Cardinals, the big play is personified in wide receiver Roy Green, who caught eight passes (two of them touchdowns) for a whopping 196 yards in the 29-27 game last season.

Green has played in 10 games against the Redskins and averaged 22.5 yards per catch. One was 75 yards in last season's game here.

Gibbs, who once watched his own Calvin Muhammad and Art Monk fly down the sidelines, sees the big play as a big factor for St. Louis.

"I have to give them the definite advantage there. They have big plays in every game with Roy Green," Gibbs said.

Green beat cornerback Darrell Green in a colorful mismatch last season. Petitbon says the two probably will meet again tonight, but, then again, everyone in the Washington secondary will get a shot at Roy Green, who has caught 15 passes for 258 yards this season.

"He's probably the best receiver in football," said Petitbon. "That's one reason why he's done very well against us."

Lomax, who became a phenom at Portland State throwing to the Redskins' Clint Didier, is the third-ranked quarterback in the NFC. Joe Theismann is still next to last.

Lomax's numbers won't exactly knock you out -- a 53.2 percent completion percentage, eight touchdown passes and three interceptions -- but his new-found poise might.

"I'm not forcing the ball in there," he said. The Redskins believe he does a much better job of locating alternative receivers.

But what of this St. Louis defense? It ranks 25th against the run in the NFL (allowing 166 yards per game), whereas the Redskins, running as well as they ever have with John Riggins and George Rogers, rank second (173 yards per game).

The St. Louis pass defense is not all that much better, allowing 209 yards per game. With Theismann and company averaging just 160, is this the week they will finally look like their former selves?

To Cardinals Coach Jim Hanifan, one of Gibbs' old coaching buddies from San Diego and St. Louis, the Redskins are about ready to shake this bad start.

"They're playing superb defensive football," he said. "They're doing the very same things that took them to the Super Bowl two of the last four years."

Well, not exactly. One of the most interesting aspects of tonight's game will be the Redskins' kickoff coverage. If hard work and worry get you anything in this league, the Redskins should stuff Cardinals kick returners Clyde Duncan (20.6-yard average) and Stump Mitchell (21.7). Hanifan, however, is smiling at the statistics sheet that shows opponents average 37.3 yards per return every time Washington kicks off.

"Tell Wayne (Sevier, Redskins' special teams coach) we're going to try a triple-reverse pass on a kickoff return," Hanifan said. "We'll certainly attempt to find that problem (of the Redskins) and hope it's there."

If that happens, the Redskins will hear the familiar boos tonight. Heck, they expect the boos regardless.