ATLANTA, SEPT. 20 -- The Washington Redskins didn't expect to lose, 21-20, to the Atlanta Falcons this afternoon.

They didn't plan for their placement kicking game to disassemble right before their very eyes. They certainly figured to gain two yards on a crucial third down with little more than five minutes to play. And, when they punted on fourth down, there was no doubt in their minds their defense could stop Atlanta and get the ball back with more than 25 seconds remaining to be played.

But the way things usually go for the Redskins here was not the way they went today before 50,882 at Atlanta Fulton County Stadium. On the brink of the NFL players strike, the Redskins (1-1) looked to be on the brink of disaster. They lost to the Falcons (1-1) for the first time in seven years, leaving little more than mistakes and injuries to remember them by in case they are gone for a while.

If there is an NFL players strike this week, the Redskins will share first place in the NFC East for a while with the Cardinals, Eagles and Cowboys, all at 1-1. The Super Bowl champion Giants are 0-2 after their upset loss to Dallas today in the Meadowlands.

How quickly Washington's fortunes turned today. The heroes of a week ago, players such as Jeff Bostic, Markus Koch, Doug Williams and Rich Milot, were either directly or indirectly responsible for the horrors of this game by their presence, or, in Milot's case, absence.

Milot, the middle linebacker who had 16 unassisted tackles against Philadelphia, developed a staph infection on his right elbow and couldn't play, leaving his job to untested Kurt Gouveia and his turf to Falcons running back Gerald Riggs, who gained 120 yards, much of it right up the middle.

Williams, who threw for 198 yards and all three Washington touchdowns, fumbled to set up an Atlanta touchdown in the first quarter and was intercepted -- when his pass bounced off tight end Glenn Dennison's hands -- at the Falcons 20 to kill a serious Washington threat midway through the second quarter.

Koch, the Redskins starting right defensive end, allowed what developed into an Atlanta touchdown drive to continue in the third quarter when he was called for roughing quarterback Scott Campbell when Campbell was stopped seven yards short of a first down on third down at the Atlanta 49. Koch said he was diving and couldn't stop himself from landing on Campbell. Three plays later, wide receiver Stacey Bailey caught a 23-yard touchdown pass for a 14-13 Atlanta lead with 5:13 left in the third quarter.

All of these things didn't help the Redskins. But, perhaps best stated, Washington's loss happened in a snap, or two or three.

The score was 7-7 (the Redskins scored on Kelvin Bryant's 17-yard reception, the Falcons on Floyd Dixon's 19-yard catch) with seven seconds remaining in the first half. Ali Haji-Sheikh, replacing the injured Jess Atkinson, entered the game to attempt his first field goal as a Redskin. It was to be a 38-yard attempt. Eric Yarber was holding in place of injured Jay Schroeder. The one constant in the equation was Bostic, the team's long-snapper for most of this decade.

Bostic snapped the ball on the ground, Yarber had trouble handling it and managed to spot it about a foot in front of where it was supposed to go, Haji-Sheikh said. The kick sailed wide to the left.

But, in a scene reminiscent of a week ago, Haji-Sheikh was run into by an Atlanta player and fell to the ground. A penalty was called, and he got a chance to try again, from 33 yards, with two seconds to go.

This time, Bostic's snap was high and behind Yarber, who reached back to get the ball, then spotted it remarkably close to where it was supposed to be. But this had taken too much time, and the Falcons' Tim Green was able to block the kick as the half ended, with Haji-Sheikh on his back again.

Haji-Sheikh kindly called these "little freak incidents." But he said he had been knocked down only once before in his career, and that was four years ago.

Bostic's last snap of the afternoon came in the third quarter, after the Redskins took the lead on a look-and-go, 18-yard pass from Williams to Gary Clark with 8:54 to play in the quarter. Once little more than an afterthought, the extra point has now become an adventure for Washington. Bostic's snap bounced in front of Yarber again, and, after going down on his hands and knees to scoop it up, he tried to run but was tackled and Washington led, 13-7.

After the Redskins scored their final touchdown, Bostic ran onto the field to snap the ball, but then saw backup snapper Darryl Grant come in and realized he should leave the game. Coach Joe Gibbs said he made the switch because he thought Bostic "was pressing a little bit."

Bostic said that was true. "Yes, I was trying to do more than I thought I had to do," he said. "We've got a new kicker, a new holder and I guess I was trying to do too much."

Gibbs said all this was not Haji-Sheikh's fault. "I feel for him," Gibbs said.

Obviously, that field goal at the end of the half could have been Washington's winning margin, and the extra point could have sent the game into overtime. But the Redskins had their chances anyway, and simply squandered them.

After Clark's touchdown and the missed extra point, the Falcons were unstoppable, scoring on Bailey's reception at the end of an eight-play, 80-yard drive to take the lead by one. The Redskins answered right back, driving the rest of the third quarter and into the fourth for Art Monk's six-yard scoring reception on third and three with 11:48 to play. In that drive to a 20-14 lead, the Redskins converted one third down when they sent out four wide receivers and Bryant, and another on a nifty 13-yard reception by Ricky Sanders.

But the most spectacular play of all was Bryant's fingertip grab of a Williams' pass for 35 yards to the Atlanta 13. Bryant ran 15 times for 70 yards (Keith Griffin ran 14 times for 73) and caught six passes for 76 more yards, proving he can be the workhorse of the Redskins offense and live to tell about it.

But there was something about the Falcons today. They kept coming right back at the Redskins, as if by pounding away at Washington this afternoon, they were getting some measure of revenge for their embarrassing, 48-10 drubbing by Tampa Bay last weekend.

After Monk's touchdown, Campbell, who was the team's backup to Dave Archer last week when things went so badly, found Dixon for a 33-yard gain on one third down, then handed off to Riggs for a five-yard gain to convert another moments later. On third and goal at the 4, Riggs ran a draw into the end zone that was followed by Mick Luckhurst's winning extra point with 6:47 left.

The Redskins had plenty of time to come back, but they only ran four offensive plays the rest of the game. On third and two from their 25 with 5:20 left, Williams handed the ball to Reggie Branch, the team's designated short-yardage back. Branch ran a play called 60 Blast to the right side. He cut in and was met low by linebacker Buddy Curry and high by nose tackle Tony Casillas. He gained one yard. Later, he said he should have been lower to the ground, that he gave the Falcons too much of his body to shoot at.

A measurement revealed the Redskins were about six inches short. There was no hesitation on the Redskins' sideline. They were punting.

"There were five minutes left," Gibbs said. "That's a lot of time."

The Falcons had other ideas. They drove from their 28 after Steve Cox's punt to the Washington 32 before punting. They forced the Redskins to take all three of their timeouts. They left the Redskins with the ball at their 20 with 25 seconds to play. Williams threw a desperation alley-oop and was intercepted by safety Tim Gordon at the Falcons 19.