ST. LOUIS -- The Redskins also are puzzled by the Redskins. They have grabbed the NFC East title at the earliest time in memory, yet nobody for an instant would consider calling them dominant.

"I was saying to some of the guys on the sideline near the end today that this has to be one of the hardest teams to figure out," defensive tackle Darryl Grant said after Sunday's 34-17 victory over the Cardinals. "We're a team that likes to be cornered; we put more pressure on ourselves than we need to.

"Very scary."

In anticipation of the Redskins' fourth division championship in seven seasons, Mark May had stuffed his duffel bag in Washington with a teamload of cigars. He pushed them deeper in his locker at halftime, because the operative c-word just then was clench, not clinch.

Washington was trailing the Cardinals by four points, a situation critical enough for Coach Joe Gibbs to rearrange the furniture. He did this in the gentle manner of a cyclone moving a house.

The coach's usually concealed temper seems to erupt about once a season. This one, players said, was even better than the tirade in Philadelphia last year that put a chair on injured reserve and wiped out a table-full of orange slices and cups of juice.

This time, Gibbs hurled a stool into a locker. Then he attacked the large chalkboard in the center of the room, first pounding it with his fist and later with a forearm.

What made this special was that Gibbs may also have let loose a naughty word.

"He might have put one in there," a player said. "Next time, we're bringing a tape recorder."

Some players near the commotion thought Gibbs might have been injured, the way George Allen once hurt himself during a team meeting trying to make a point by slamming some boards with a karate blow.

No, Gibbs said after the game, the forearm was fine. By that time, so was his team.

Much of this 9-3, strike-and-strife season has been as puzzling as it has been successful. In fight lingo, the Redskins win split decisions; they almost never score a knockout.

"When have you ever seen anybody clinch a division with nine wins?" said General Manager Bobby Beathard, forgetting for a moment that the Redskins strutted into the playoffs five years ago with an 8-1 record.

His point is well taken. That strike-plagued season the Redskins literally ran over everybody through the playoffs and Super Bowl. Sunday, George Rogers finally crawled past three-game replacement runner Lionel Vital for the team leadership in rushing.

"It's hard to get a read on this team," Beathard said. "In the past, you pretty much knew what to expect the day of the game. Or the day before. We're a mystery team."

How come?

"I don't know."

In each game, the Redskins might be bad longer than they are good; the scoreboard at the end usually generates smiles and happy talk.

Dave Butz paraded around the postgame dressing room, puffing on his cigar, shaking hands and saying: "Happy ten thousand." That is how much money a playoff game means to each Redskin.

Just watching hundreds of miles away, Vital and the other Scabskins also had their incomes soar by $10,000. They will not participate in the playoffs; they will participate equally in the playoff swag.

This victory over the Cardinals was not much different than many others for the Redskins. In the first half, Rogers gained 20 yards in seven carries; Jay Schroeder was five for 14 for 99 yards, 84 of them on a touchdown pass to Gary Clark.

"We're streaky," defensive coordinator Larry Peccatiello said. "In the end, though, we find a way to get out of the predicaments we sometimes put ourselves in. We have a lot of belief in ourselves."

May thought about the proper way to describe these Redskins.

"Tough," he said. "Gritty. We've had a lot of turnovers when we didn't want them all season. But it's almost like water rolling off our back now. We've been able to overcome adversity so often."

Guile was useful this day.

On third and four from the St. Louis 7 midway through the third quarter, Redskins watchers had no idea what was about to unfold. The last thing the Cardinals or anyone else expected actually took place.

Having been unsuccessful running to that point of the drippy game, the Redskins ran. But Rogers did not run; Schroeder did, all the way into the end zone on a hastily drawn quarterback draw that gained a 17-17 tie.

The Cardinals have been a strong second-half team of late, but they scored no more points the final 26 minutes.

"They moved the ball," Peccatiello said. "They went up and down the field. But we eventually would get them in a situation we could exploit -- and we got it done."

"At the start of games," Grant said, "nobody knows what'll happen. Coaches. Players. Fans. But if things don't go our way early, we keep going until something good gets going."

In truth, the Redskins have not had to play all that well to win the division, because the replacement season gave them so much of an advantage. With Russ Grimm of the Hogs soon to be activated, the ground game ought to improve.

Kelvin Bryant also was inactive here with a hamstring and ankle injuries and Art Monk might miss a few weeks with a sprained knee and a partial ligament tear. But the luxury the Redskins earned in Busch Stadium is not having to win again until the second weekend of the playoffs.

"If we ever get four quarters going," Joe Jacoby said, "I don't know what'll happen." Something very good, he imagines.