Although the Dallas Cowboys rallied from a 21-point third-quarter deficit yesterday as Danny White threw two touchdown passes, perhaps the most visible example of the team's tumble toward the bottom of the National Football League came at the two-minute warning.

Normally stoic Coach Tom Landry, whose expressionless face usually meant his mind was working on another miracle finish, was vehemently begging officials for a measurement on what was ruled a Washington first down at the Redskins 36.

"The whole game was right there," maintained Landry, who also saw two fourth-quarter replay reviews go against his team.

"But they wouldn't even bring out the sticks because they said we hadn't challenged the decision. Who has to challenge a decision like that when it is so obvious? We played hard, had plenty of chances and really can't complain, but it is a shame our guys didn't have a chance they might have deserved."

"They said we didn't challenge the call, but I think it's just amazing that you don't measure, whether somebody asks for it or not," Landry said. "That's just foolishness. The whole game is right there. If they measure and we lose, then we lose, but at least measure it."

The Redskins held onto the ball the rest of the way to effectively end a Dallas comeback bid, and eliminate Dallas from wild-card consideration.

The Cowboys were trailing, 24-13, when another ruling went against them. With 7:45 left and Dallas in possession at midfield, instant replay official Chuck Heberling reversed an on-field ruling and gave Washington cornerback Barry Wilburn an interception on the Redskins' 17.

"From my vantage point, the ball was coming out before he even hit the ground," Landry said. "I don't know what the problem was there."

Heberling said that the replay showed Wilburn "clearly had the ball" but lost possession when he hit the ground.

It was a tough day all around for the Cowboys. The silver-and-blue uniforms carry a lot of familiar names from one of the NFL's most spirited rivalries, but in the fourth quarter it was clear the Cowboys are just a shell of what was once America's Team.

In the days of 21 consecutive winning seasons between 1965 and 1985, when the Cowboys were close late in a game, both the fans who rooted for them and those who rooted against them, surmised they would find a way to pull out a victory. This year, the feeling is gone and the Cowboys will suffer their second straight losing record.

"The fourth quarter was always our time to shine," said veteran fullback Timmy Newsome. "But lately for us, the clouds have been out. You look at all the sacks, penalties and turnovers we had today, and those are the same things that have happened to us all season. In this league, you have to be able to win in the fourth quarter, and we just couldn't pull it out."

The Cowboys still have many names left from the good old days, but yesterday, defensive tackle Randy White was used only in specialty situations, Ed (Too Tall) Jones never got close enough to Washington's quarterback to tell if it was Jay Schroeder or Doug Williams, Tony Dorsett made his presence known chiefly from the sidelines and cornerback Everson Walls spent most of the day chasing, not covering, Gary Clark.

Early in the fourth period, trailing, 24-13, Dallas elected to go on fourth and four at the Washington 20. Alvin Walton broke up the pass for tight end Doug Cosbie at the Redskins 10.

"We needed a little boost right then and thought we had the play that could do it," said Landry, who in years past would have taken the field goal and showed confidence in his defense.

Landry and the Cowboys have come under heavy criticism in recent weeks because Dallas fans, and the Cowboys' new owner, Bum Bright, expected the winning to continue.

"I don't like the Cowboys where they are, but if they were on top, maybe I would be out fishing somewhere right now," said Landry. "But they are not on top, and I like the challenge. I know exactly where I am, where this team is headed and how long it will take. That is why I can tolerate it all."

Not tolerating things so well is Dorsett, the league's fourth all-time leading rusher who carried only eight times yesterday for 40 yards as Herschel Walker has become Dallas' main weapon.

"This is the first time I have ever been a reserve, and mentally, it has taken a whole lot getting used to," he said. "Sure it has been frustrating. Every team wants to put its best players on the field, but I feel I am one of the better players on this team; the management does not. Tony Dorsett, in my opinion, is still the same back as the one who came into this league 11 years ago, but the Cowboys are in a new era and headed in a new direction so yours truly must find a new home."

Walls said the Cowboys, who started five rookies, are being rebuilt, but veterans have had trouble passing down the winning tradition.

"It's been tough," he said of the past two seasons. "{Safety} Michael Downs and myself talk about it all the time, but we just have to go out there and start showing everyone how it has to be done."