In their darkest hour, when they were 1-3 and some of them privately thought an 8-8 record might be all that was within their diminishing reach, the Washington Redskins made one last, great wish for the remainder of 1985.

They wanted to play in another game that meant something to them.

Not for prestige. For the playoffs.

Give this game -- the rematch between the Redskins (5-4) and the Dallas Cowboys (6-3) at 4 p.m. today at RFK Stadium -- a long, hard look. If the Redskins' record still were horrible, say, 3-6, it would be nothing but a grudge match. Fun, but meaningless.

But the Redskins no longer are horrible. Unpredictable, yes. Horrible, no.

And are they ever pleased to have arrived at Week 10 of this football adventure knowing that a victory would tie them with Dallas at 6-4 in the NFC East. The New York Giants would lead the division at 7-3 if they were to beat the Los Angeles Rams today.

"I am amazed that we are back," Redskins center Rick Donnalley said this week. "We have made an excellent turnaround. I can't honestly say I expected it the whole time, especially when we were 1-3. But now we're talking Super Bowl again, like we usually do."

Washington-Dallas II needs no definition, of course. They hate you. You hate them.

But isn't it interesting that a game already filled to the brim with history and intrigue and ghosts gets to be so important at the moment, too?

"This is like being back in the war, World War II, only with a crowd cheering," said Redskins defensive end Dexter Manley. "I wasn't around then, but I guarantee it's like that."

The Cowboys and Redskins have played each other 51 times, with Dallas winning 29 and Washington, 20. There have been two unsatisfying ties.

It's unlikely you will find a better rivalry -- for unlikely heroes, for national interest, for pure distaste -- in the pro game.

When the NFL put together its 1985 schedule and glitzy "Monday Night Football," needing a ratings pick-me-up, received Washington-Dallas to open the season, it hardly seemed coincidental.

Then, when Dallas lent quarterbacks Joe Theismann and Jay Schroeder six new receivers for the evening and ended up winning, 44-14, it became anything but a splashy debut.

But it gave everyone something to look forward to.

These teams meet today as textbook tests of Coach Joe Gibbs' theme of 1985: It is better to catch a team after a big win than after a loss.

Furthermore, Gibbs' team has played much better when it has had to. The Redskins usually are better coming off a loss than a win.

So what have we here? Dallas embarrassed by St. Louis on Monday night, 21-10, the day after Washington pulverized helpless Atlanta, 44-10.

If you follow Gibbs' thinking, this doesn't look great for Washington. Then again, if you think streaks, you have to like the Redskins. They seem to be peaking at just the right moment, as if they planned it all along.

"You work the whole season to get in position for a big game like this," Donnalley said. "It's like Arnold Palmer used to say: He wanted to be in position to win it on the last hole of the tournament."

Why, you might ask, is a 5-4 team even thinking of its Super Bowl chances?

The answer is simple, and it lies in the schedule the next two weeks. Although it's hard to look past today at RFK, the Redskins know they play the Giants a week from Monday night.

Meanwhile, Dallas will play host to Chicago. These next two weeks may make a champion.

"We lose these two, that's pretty much it," said middle linebacker Neal Olkewicz. "We win, we're in the catbird seat."

The mass of reporters sent to Redskin Park this week to find out about the born-again Redskins often found its way to free safety Curtis Jordan.

And Jordan said, again and again, that this was a better defense than the one that played Dallas last time. It's easy to see it's a more settled, stable offense, too, with Gary Clark playing for the mistake-prone Calvin Muhammad at wide receiver, with the league's best running game, with a new group of Hogs who slop around just about like the old ones.

Yet there are questions, chief among them the ability of the new left offensive tackle, Dan McQuaid, to handle Dallas' right defensive end, Jim Jeffcoat, and the Washington offense's need to score early in order not to have to throw often.

Of this game, and Dallas, Jordan said, "Neither one of us is hiding anything. We both know each other really well."

What no one knows is how 36-year-old quarterback Joe Theismann will play. There are those on and around the Redskins who believe he must have his best game of an otherwise disappointing season to date if the Redskins are to win.

He must successfully evade Dallas' famed and feared blitz, something he did not do in September, they say. He must occasionally complete a long pass, again something he has not done much this season.

Theismann said he has more incentive in this game because of what the Cowboys did to him on his birthday the last time. He most likely also has the weight of the rest of the Redskins' season on his broad shoulders.

Washington-Dallas manufactures heroes, though, whether or not Theismann is to become one today.

Before Thanksgiving 1974, only his family, neighbors and friends really knew Clint Longley, a quarterback nicknamed "The Mad Bomber." He replaced Roger Staubach and beat the Redskins, 24-23. He became an instant star. He never did much else.

Washington's Ken Houston stopped running back Walt Garrison inside the one on a pass reception with time running out in a 14-7 Redskins victory in 1973.

Manley gave quarterback Danny White a concussion in a 31-17 Washington win in the 1983 NFC championship game and hasn't stopped talking.

Cowboys lineman Larry Cole turned an interception into a 43-yard touchdown return in a 14-10 Dallas victory in 1980.

Theismann? Jeffcoat? The Dallas defensive backs (again)? John Riggins, perhaps for one final time?

It certainly will happen again today, to someone.

As expected, linebacker Monte Coleman was activated yesterday after he spent six weeks on the injured reserve list with a strained right hamstring.

This is the third of the Redskins' five free moves off injured reserve this season. Center Jeff Bostic and defensive end Steve Hamilton were the others.

To make room for Coleman, the Redskins waived linebacker Chris Keating, who was signed when Coleman went on injured reserve.

Coleman is expected to fill his usual roles on passing situations and special teams.