ATLANTA, SEPT. 20 -- As a freshman at Stephen F. Austin University, Floyd Dixon ran track. Almost weekly in Lone Star Conference meets, he found his plentiful speed still not enough to outsprint Darrell Green, then a senior at Texas A&I.

Today, at Atlanta Fulton County Stadium, Dixon finally won a few foot races from Green.

From the start of Atlanta's 21-20 victory over the Washington Redskins, the 5-foot-9 second-year player was sent on a series of sideline dashes against the Redskins all-pro cornerback. Dixon caught a 37-yard first-quarter pass with Green defending and beat the cornerback for an 19-yard touchdown that tied the game at 7-7 with 1:29 left in the period.

More than grabbing two passes from quarterback Scott Campbell, who was making his first start for Atlanta, Dixon quickly helped instill some confidence in a Falcons team that badly needed it after a devastating 48-10 opening day loss to Tampa Bay.

"We respect Darrell Green a lot and we knew that he usually covers a team's fastest receiver," said Dixon, who finished with five catches for 105 yards. "They figure he has big-time speed and can stay with anybody, but I have big-time speed, too. In college, he always won, but today was my day. The next time may be his day, but somebody had to die in this, and today, he died."

The loss to Tampa Bay apparently had convinced the Falcons faithful that the NFL's most improved defensive team (No. 25 to No. 7) in 1986 was going to be the disaster of 1987. The game, sold out for more than a month, left a plethora of potential scalpers outside the stadium holding dozens of tickets destined for fire-sale discounts. But what a difference seven days made.

Campbell threw like Steve Bartkowski in his heyday, tight end Ken Whisenhunt had the game of his career and Gerald Riggs came up with his typical performance against the Redskins (three games, three 100-yard rushing performances) as the Falcons prepared to enter the probable NFL players strike this week as a .500 team.

The real difference, however, between the Falcons' trouncing by Tampa Bay and the victory over Washington (there were 8,359 no-shows) was that, for a change, Atlanta let the opposition do the self-destructing.

"After I threw that interception {to Washington's Barry Wilburn to end Atlanta's first drive}, we could have thought, 'Oh no, here we go again,' " said Campbell. "But nobody was going to let that happen."

With six weeks left last season, Campbell was a spectator at a Falcons game. He had been released by Pittsburgh and signed to a future contract by Atlanta. On his way to a Hilton Head, S.C., vacation, he stopped to see Atlanta play the Bears. Quarterback Dave Archer had his shoulder separated in that game, and Campbell was paged from the stands.

This season, Archer never made it through a woeful opening-game performance. Campbell became the starter this week and threw for 271 yards and two touchdowns. He demonstrated leadership to an offense that was chaotic, at best, a week ago.

"After what we went through last week, this was a doubly proud accomplishment," said Falcons Coach Marion Campbell. "Scott's story from vacation to being No. 3 to No. 2 to No. 1 is amazing, but, to be honest, I thought he could do it. We needed a spark, and he was it. Right to the end, the team fought along with him."

Quarterback Campbell received good protection from the offensive line, which not only allowed him to throw long, but also to check off his primary receivers.

"Sometimes I was the secondary receiver and Scott had so much time he was able to find me," said Whisenhunt, a third-year pro who had not caught more than four passes in a game before today. He finished with six receptions for 68 yards.

Other than going with Campbell over Archer and starting Whisenhunt as a second tight end, the Falcons made few obvious changes from last week.

"The bulk of that offense was here at the beginning of the last game; we just needed the desire and didn't have it last week," said right guard Bill Fralic. "We made some big plays, and that gives you a shot in the arm. This is what we can be like, although this isn't the whole season and it wasn't the Super Bowl. But a game like this was good for everyone in this locker room."

Marion Campbell, who has had his ups and downs in a previous tenure as Falcons coach and in Philadelphia, also was a happy, but cautious evaluator of his team's victory.

"I don't know how good we are, but I know we were not prepared mentally last week," he said. "All I do know was that what you saw last week was not our real football team."