For the Washington Redskins, it was sweet, sloppy revenge. It was as perfect as the spiraling winning touchdown pass Jay Schroeder lofted into the hands of wide receiver Ricky Sanders, as messy as the last-ditch defensive effort that stopped the New York Giants only two yards short of victory as time ran out.

It was a first half of seemingly endless Redskins errors, a second half of bombs-away Washington bliss. And, when it was over, the Redskins had defeated the Giants for the first time in more than two years, 23-19, virtually eliminating the defending Super Bowl champions (3-8) from the playoffs a month before the season ends.

Washington, meanwhile, improved its record to 8-3, three games up on the rest of the NFC East with four games to go. In spite of their inconsistent play this season, the Redskins are poised to win their division for the first time in three seasons.

After what happened yesterday before 45,815 soggy spectators at RFK Stadium (there were 9,855 no-shows in the all-day rain), anything seems possible as the Redskins head into December.

After falling behind by 16-0 at halftime and 19-3 with less than 19 minutes to play, the Redskins scored three touchdowns in the final 17 minutes of the game to win. The last touchdown was scored on a 28-yard pass from Schroeder to Sanders with 4:56 to play.

Despite being roughed up for six sacks by the Giants, Schroeder had his best game of the season -- and it came just two weeks after he was benched after a couple of poor performances. He completed 28 of 46 passes for 331 yards and three touchdowns. His second half was superb: he was 17 for 25 for 217 yards and all three touchdowns.

Doug Williams, the team's starting quarterback last week, watched in street clothes from the sideline as Schroeder pulled out the game. Williams has a sore back, but he said he should be ready to play by this Sunday's game at St. Louis. Williams quoted Coach Joe Gibbs' "rules" the other day, saying he can't lose his starting job because of injury. But after the way Schroeder rallied the Redskins, might he not have his old job back?

"I'll make up my mind tomorrow, Tuesday or Wednesday," Gibbs said immediately after the game. "I don't have any rule etched in stone. If a guy looks great when another guy is injured, sometimes that guy gets the job that way. I'll talk to both Doug and Jay and then announce what I'll do."

Williams stuck to his earlier statement. "If he does {give Williams back the starting job}, he keeps his word. If he doesn't do it, he broke the rules. But sometimes people break the rules," Williams said.

And Schroeder? "I would expect to {start}," both Associated Press and United Press International quoted him as saying.

Sixteen times in Schroeder's career, the Redskins have been behind as a game entered the fourth quarter. Nine times, he has pulled out a win. Including yesterday.

The comeback actually began with 1:17 remaining in the third quarter. After Raul Allegre's fourth and last field goal gave the Giants a 19-3 lead, the Redskins took over at their 27. After sputtering for most of the game, they suddenly were their old selves again.

Schroeder needed only four plays in the drive, threw just four passes, and all were completed. Nine yards to running back Kelvin Bryant. Twenty-three yards to wide receiver Gary Clark over the middle (where else?). Seven yards to wide receiver Art Monk. And, finally, 34 yards to Clark in the end zone. Clark gave cornerback Perry Williams a fake outside and then shifted inside to the end zone to meet Schroeder's scoring pass.

Amazingly, Ali Haji-Sheikh missed another extra point, and the Redskins still were trailing by 10 with little more than a quarter to go. Gibbs said new center David Jones lunged forward after snapping the ball, creating a gap that allowed a Giants defender to get through to rush the kick.

But things were heating up. The Redskins closed to within three points with 10:27 remaining. This time, Schroeder led the team 48 yards in six plays, finishing the drive with a six-yard scoring pass to Keith Griffin, who hurdled free safety Terry Kinard into the end zone, then jumped into the arms of tackle Joe Jacoby for a joyous bear hug.

"I see the goal line, I'm going up," Griffin said. "I didn't want to take a chance on slipping and falling down."

Suddenly, the incessant rain was pounding harder. Redskins who rarely are up on their tiptoes on the sideline, waving towels and fists, were up on their tiptoes, waving towels and fists.

"I kept thinking about all those books they wrote {11 were written after last season} and about losing to them three times last season," tackle Mark May said. "It made me mad."

The Redskins defense, which allowed the Giants only four first downs in the second half before the final, frantic drive, forced yet another punt by Sean Landeta, and, after a face-mask penalty, Washington took over on the New York 45. In less than two minutes, the Redskins scored the winning touchdown on Schroeder's 28-yard pass to Sanders, a fade route that is as simple as a sandlot play: "I throw it up and see if he can go get it," Schroeder said.

Williams slipped and fell as Schroeder threw the ball, leaving Sanders all alone on the play. The Redskins led for the first time, 23-19, with 4:56 to play.

But the Giants were not finished. They began a final drive at their 21 with 56 seconds to play and no timeouts left. Quarterback Phil Simms, back after missing three games because of injured knee ligaments, raced the clock as his team moved downfield.

Finally, with four seconds left, he had one play left from the Washington 16. He threw over the middle to running back Tony Galbreath, who bulled his way toward the goal line. Up came nickel back Dennis Woodberry, a former replacement player who won his way onto the regular team with some extremely hard hits.

He won his way into his teammates' hearts in the darkness last evening, when he grabbed hold of Galbreath and stopped him two yards from a touchdown as time expired. Woodberry didn't realize Galbreath had come so close to scoring. "I thought he was at the 5 or 6," Woodberry said.

New York Coach Bill Parcells knew it was the 2. "That's a tough one to take right there, man," he said.

Especially because his team could do nothing wrong in the first half. The Giants built their 16-0 lead on Allegre's field goals of 24, 42 and 30 yards and a 30-yard touchdown catch by tight end Mark Bavaro. Their defensive line and linebackers, playing without all-pro linebacker Lawrence Taylor (strained hamstring), were manhandling the Redskins' offensive line.

"We were trying to help each other too much in the first half," May said. "We were trying to do a little too much. They made us look bad."

That was the Redskins' refrain for the last 3 1/2 games against the Giants. But not the last half.

"I'm thrilled," Gibbs said. "I was disgusted with the way things were happening early, but everything turned around. It was a great night, really."