This is not the best time to be an Atlanta Falcon, but David Archer figures it's an opportunity, a chance for a small-town boy from Soda Springs, Idaho, to make it in the big time, even if the circumstances that have pushed him into the limelight are less than ideal.

The Falcons, who will play host to the Washington Redskins on Sunday (1 p.m.) at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium, are 1-7. That puts them two games behind the third-place New Orleans Saints, the only team the Falcons have beaten. Atlanta could be mathematically eliminated from the race for the NFC West title by the end of next weekend.

Archer got his chance when Steve Bartkowski, who has been Atlanta's quarterback for the past 10 seasons, was put on the injured list. Later, team officials indicated Bartkowski probably will never again play for the Falcons.

Falcons Coach Dan Henning, who is in the final year of his three-year contract, told the Atlanta Constitution Friday that he told Bartkowski Oct. 16 that he would be going in "another direction" on a "permanent" basis. That is where Archer comes in.

Archer has started the past three games, including the win over New Orleans. Bartkowski, who has a sprained right knee, was put on the injured reserve list last Wednesday. The Falcons designated it as a minor injury, which means that Bartkowski can come off the list at any time, but then must be waived as soon as he is healthy and cannot rejoin the team this season.

Bartkowski has said publicly that he thinks he can still play. That, of course, only makes the situation tougher on Archer.

"I had a feeling that something might happen sometime," Archer said yesterday from Atlanta. "This was his 11th season, and I thought they might work someone else in. I was the young guy, and if I showed I could do the job, then maybe eventually I'd play. But I didn't expect it to happen like it has, and I didn't think he'd be put on injured reserve.

"It's hard," Archer added. "He and I are good friends. He's done so much for this organization that it's hard to see him go out that way. It should be more star-studded. I look up to him, watched him in high school. He's showed me a lot and helped me a lot in the year and a half I've been here."

The 23-year-old Archer (6 feet 2, 203 pounds) signed with Atlanta as a free agent after the 1984 draft. He had spent two years at Snow College in Utah and then was a two-year starter at Iowa State, where he led the Big Eight in total offense (2,698 yards) his senior year.

Archer is still feeling his way. The 31-24 win over New Orleans on Oct. 20 (20 of 30 passes for 250 yards, one touchdown, three interceptions) felt good, but the 24-10 loss to Dallas on Sunday (nine of 23 for 99 yards, three interceptions and five sacks) did not.

"I feel confident in the offense, but there's still a lot to learn," Archer said. "It's a different defense every week. This week will be the first opportunity to see a defense that I've seen before. I played against the Redskins in the preseason (a 17-13 Washington win), though they probably didn't have the first unit in."

That August night, Archer started and was a hounded three for 13 for 25 yards.

After Sunday's loss in Dallas, Henning said, "David did not play as well as he did the previous weeks, but that is going to happen to a young quarterback. He must learn from his mistakes and rebound, because the Redskins will show him another good defense."

The Falcons might have decided to go with Archer the rest of this season, which by any reasonable estimate is already shot. But beyond that, Archer knows he will be challenged.

"I can write my own destiny," he said. "It's a lot better than sitting back, having them draft a quarterback, then have to battle for a job in training camp. I'm taking the approach that I'm the No. 1 quarterback, and hopefully, I can firmly establish myself in the next eight games."

The Redskins were off yesterday, which might be the best thing for the team, given the myriad of injuries.

Tom Beasley, who did not play Sunday because of a groin pull, will go easy this week but might be able to play. Linebacker Monte Coleman (right hamstring strain) is unlikely to be activated this week.

Free safety Curtis Jordan was named yesterday as the NFC defensive player of the week for his play Sunday including an interception, a fumble recovery and 19 tackles.