ST. LOUIS, DEC. 5 -- The last time the Washington Redskins won the NFC East, they defeated the St. Louis Cardinals to do it. That was the last game of the 1984 season, a contest of furious late rallies won by the Redskins, 29-27.

The last time the Redskins qualified for a playoff spot, they beat the Cardinals to do that, too. That was at this point last season, when the Redskins beat St. Louis, 20-17, on Max Zendejas' 27-yard field goal with four seconds left.

Now, with the division title again within the Redskins' reach, they play at Busch Stadium Sunday at 1 p.m. Somehow, it seems fitting, although no one is saying it will be easy.

If the Redskins beat the Cardinals, they will clinch their first division title in three years and their fourth in Coach Joe Gibbs' seven seasons with the team. It also would be the team's fifth playoff appearance in the Gibbs era.

The Cardinals, embarrassed by Washington's replacements, 28-21, in October, have won two consecutive games, 31-19 over Philadelphia and 34-21 over Atlanta. It's the first time they've won two in a row under second-year coach Gene Stallings, and both the teams they beat defeated the Redskins. "That's progress," Stallings said.

In their past four games, three of them victories, the Cardinals have averaged 30 points and 374 total yards.

St. Louis quarterback Neil Lomax is "the hottest quarterback we've seen all year," Gibbs said today. He is ranked second in the NFC in passing, behind San Francisco's Joe Montana. He has completed 60.1 percent of his passes and, for a change, has been getting protection from his offensive line. It was common for Lomax to be sacked five or six times a game the past few seasons; in 11 games this season, the Cardinals have given up 39 sacks.

Five times this season, he has led fourth-quarter comebacks to either take the lead or get in a position to score the winning touchdown. Three times, the Cardinals lost those games, twice when their defense couldn't hold the lead. St. Louis has been outclassed in only one game, a 30-7 loss to the New York Giants.

To the Redskins, this hits home. Although they have beaten St. Louis six consecutive times, they have not had a thorough, convincing win over the Cardinals since 1985. The last two times they have played in RFK Stadium, the Cardinals were driving to a possible tie as time ran out. Last year here, the game would have gone into overtime had the Redskins not mustered a last-minute drive of their own.

"It seems we've never had an easy game with them," Gibbs said. "They've always stuck close."

But if the Redskins ever appeared to be in position to win a game decisively, this would be it. This team still is living off the euphoria of its 23-19 win over the Giants. "I'm hoping what the other night did was kind of make us as a team," Gibbs said of quarterback Jay Schroeder's three-touchdown performance in the final 17 minutes.

One huge sigh of relief will emanate from the Redskins sideline if their running game in general, and George Rogers in particular, return from unscheduled midseason sabbaticals. Rogers, who gained six yards on two carries last week, has had his two best games as a pro against St. Louis. Along the line, veteran center Jeff Bostic might be getting his last chance to start, with Russ Grimm eligible to come off injured reserve next week.

Schroeder will be watched closely as he officially regains the starting job he lost when he was benched three weeks ago. It's ironic that's happening here. Late last season, in that playoff-clinching game, the Cardinals shocked the Redskins by changing from a blitzing, man-to-man style of pass defense to a soft, deep zone. They prevented Schroeder from throwing deep and exposed his weakness: the short pass. This led to more zone defenses and more problems throwing short, which in turn led to more pressure, which finally led to problems throwing deep, which ultimately resulted in Schroeder's benching.

Redskins Notes: The Redskins brought rookie cornerback Brian Davis off injured reserve and activated him for this game. To make room for Davis on the 50-man roster, safety Clarence Vaughn (ankle) was put on injured reserve. Then, to make room for Davis on the 45-man roster, cornerback Tim Morrison was deactivated. In two other moves, quarterback Doug Williams replaced Mark Rypien on the active, 45-man roster, and running back Timmy Smith replaced the injured Kelvin Bryant (ankle and hamstring) on the active roster.