The game was less than 17 minutes old and Boomer Esiason, in his long awaited homecoming, already had completed six of nine passes for 202 yards and two touchdowns for a 24-7 lead over the Washington Redskins.

He was having flashbacks to last week when he led the Cincinnati Bengals to a 50-24 decimation of the Dallas Cowboys. "I was saying to myself, 'Oh, here we go again, just like last week' . . . but it never materialized."

Playing in RFK Stadium for the first time, 30 minutes from where he played four years at the University of Maryland, Esiason completed 22 of 39 passes for 357 yards. But a third-down sack in the final minute pushed Jim Breech out of reasonable field goal range and left Cincinnati a 27-24 loser.

The sack, by Washington linebacker Rich Milot for a 12-yard loss, prevented what would have been at least overtime, and a heroic game-ending drive by Esiason.

"Kenny Anderson told me never to second-guess myself," Esiason said. "But now that I'm thinking about it, I saw them coming. I could have called an audible; although the snap clock was under 10 seconds and it was so loud I don't know if anybody could have heard me.

"I wanted to hit James Brooks on a flare-out pattern. But I think it was Monte Coleman (a Redskins linebacker) who took that away . . . If I had it to do all over again, I'd fall down, call timeout and set up the field goal (of about 39 yards). You do something, but you don't take the sack."

Instead, Esiason was trapped by Milot, and only an "in the grasp of the defender" whistle by the official prevented an interception-touchdown return by Dean Hamel. Breech's subsequent 51-yard attempt was slightly short, slightly wide to the right.

"It's not Jimmy's miss; it's my miss," Esiason said apologetically.

Esiason knew that many of the people who came to see him play wanted a mixed-bag homecoming: a good performance by Esiason and a Redskins victory.

But Esiason wanted more. Being the No. 1-ranked quarterback in the AFC for much of this season has already said "I told you so" to the Redskins and New York Giants -- two of the teams that passed him up in the NFL draft two years ago and the two "home teams" he dearly wanted to play for. But there's nothing like telling them again, live and in color.

"Coming back here was so special for me," he said. "I've been really looking forward to this since last winter when I saw the schedule, so don't let me kid you about how pumped up I was."

The adrenaline certainly didn't hurt, as he threw 56 yards to Steve Kreider to set up the Bengals' first touchdown; 26 yards to Rodney Holman for the score that put Cincinnati ahead, 14-7, and 51 yards to Holman for the touchdown that made it 21-7.

"We scored 24 points so quickly, I think we took it for granted that everything was going to be like last week, and we never turned the knife," Esiason said.

He had a chance to do it himself with more than 10 minutes left in the first half. It appeared the Bengals were about to take a 31-7 lead as Esiason passed Cincinnati to the five-yard line. But his next pass -- intended for Eddie Brown but apparently tipped by teammate Cris Collinsworth -- was intercepted in the end zone by safety Curtis Jordan. The Bengals never got so close to the end zone again.

"When I let the ball go, I figured it was six," Esiason said. "But I never saw the guy until he jumped up. Who intercepted that? Curtis Jordan? Damn. That's the key play in the game."

Several dropped passes, penalties and a couple of overthrows "took our offense out of synch," according to Esiason. And some strange play calling by Coach Sam Wyche in the second half didn't seem to help matters much. One double reverse (three ballhandlers) resulted in a fumble by Collinsworth after a three-yard gain. "I think we out-thought ourselves," Esiason said.

Esiason ended his homecoming by sitting on his helmet on the sideline, trying not to watch as Breech attempted his 51-yarder. "You can't put that kind of pressure on any kicker," he said.

The Bengals did everything possible to keep pressure off Esiason during the week. When Esiason got to work on Tuesday morning, he found at least 15 messages from Washington-Baltimore television and newspaper people requesting interviews.

Esiason, who knew many of the inquirers personally, was a little worried about so much attention being focused on him.

"Sam told me, 'Don't get involved with that,' Esiason said. "If the Redskins were going to get sick of me, I wanted them to get sick of me on Sunday, and not during the week from the papers and television. I didn't want the Redskins to hear, 'Boomer this, and Boomer that,' and get all fired up. So we tried to keep it really low key."

But few things involving Esiason can be truly low key. At least 50 people, including several former Maryland players, were waiting for him outside the Bengals' locker room. Dozens of current Maryland players requested to leave later than scheduled last night for the Cherry Bowl game in Pontiac, Mich., because they wanted to see their former teammate.

"I can't tell you how excited I was about this," Esiason said, an hour after the game. "I just didn't like the ending."