For the most part, the game lived down to its expectations, the Redskins, as usual, playing just well enough not to lose. But just as Washingtonians were warming for an auld lang syne to The Rivalry, something typically spicy took place.

"Have you ever seen a quarterback go after a middle linebacker before?" said Redskins center Jeff Bostic, by way of inducing another neat bit of ferocity into Redskins-Cowboys lore.

Danny White turning pit bull on Neal Olkewicz might not make a top 10 list of incidents, merry and scary, that have made these semiannual collisions among the most anticipated in sport.

Still, any spark that might rekindle embers growing colder each time the sideline chains get moved is gratefully welcomed by us knee-jerk tradition buffs.

The Skins and Pokes not being special is like Sinatra with a cold. Or somebody spilling kerosene into fine wine. For a while, it appears, The Rivalry is going to be fueled by residual anger.

Cowboys warriors, sadly, no longer seem able to match the Redskins -- and perhaps half a dozen other teams -- in the weekly NFL battles. Mainly, this is because Dallas has not done anything especially imaginative since 1977, when a trade heist once routine fetched Tony Dorsett.

Yesterday was more than slightly melancholy until the final three minutes, when the Cowboys narrowed a 21-point deficit to less than a touchdown on a play that ended with what the game-summary sheet called "offsetting penalties, personal fouls both teams, 5-yd. TD play."

On the touchdown pass from White to Rod Barksdale, Cowboys left tackle Daryle Smith had been impolite enough for Dexter Manley to rip the helmet off his head.

What followed forces newspaper stiffs to join both teams and grab the most despised cop-out in football: We'll have to wait for the films before passing any judgment.

"We'll be looking to judge Olky," said teammate Joe Jacoby. "Was it a TKO or a knockout?"

Jacoby paused, then turned on a wicked smile.

"Olky ought to hide," he said. "A quarterback beating up on a linebacker."

Olkewicz took full blame for getting both benches cleared. He saw "number 66 {Kevin Cogan}" dragging Manley up the field, as a groundskeeper would a heavy mat during the fifth inning of a baseball game.

"I have to admit," said Olkewicz, a slither of grass still stuck to his hair, "I started it. I went in to knock {Cogan} off and all hell broke loose."

The Redskins then saw White tear into Olkewicz.

"There have been a few times in my career when emotion has overtaken my common sense," White said. "That was one of them." Jokingly, he had volunteered: "I decided by halftime I was going to get me a Redskin. I wanted Manley {who knocked him out of a playoff game five years ago}."

White got in his licks. But the first blow, the one that did the most damage, Olkewicz will be relieved to know, apparently came from 285-pound Crawford Ker instead of the Cowboys quarterback with the bad right hand coming into the game.

"Next thing I knew everybody was on top of me," Olkewicz said.

It later was mentioned to union leader Olkewicz that White had crossed the Cowboys picket line during the early-season player-management unpleasantness. "Oh, really?" Olkewicz chirped.

If Dorsett, Too Tall Jones and Randy White, or their ghosts, had not been on the RFK Stadium semi-sod, if Tom Landry had not graced the sideline and Tex Schramm not been doing a slow burn in the press box, this would have been another tepid Redskins performance against a below-.500 team.

If the blue had been a different shade, Cowboys could have passed for Lions. At one point, when he chose to go for it on fourth and four from the Redskins' 20-yard line with nearly the entire fourth period remaining, Landry could have passed for the Jets' Joe Walton.

The Cowboys could earn few breaks, and got fewer from the officials. The Father of Replay, Schramm, squirmed as two calls were reversed by the eye in the sky and his team suffered.

Fans, bored with the exceptional length of the game and with several long Redskins plays but almost no time-draining drives, should know that Landry sort of planned it that way.

"He does not want you to move the ball consistently," Redskins offensive thinker Dan Henning said. "He says: 'Throw it. Beat me {with long passes} -- or lose.' "

This was Henning's explanation for the Redskins averaging 2.2 yards on 31 rushes. We've come to expect that, although the line and George Rogers did muster a heroic effort that gained about eight inches when only six were needed on third down to all but assure victory.

The more heralded Cowboys runners, Dorsett and Herschel Walker, had little better success than Rogers. Fact is, Dallas' most consistent gainer was named encroachment, who ripped off five-yard bursts four times.

In a series that almost always gets split, Washington has won a rare and dubious double. Both the replacement and regular teams have bopped the Cowboys. Each was a satisfying victory for Redskins management generally undervalued when compared to Landry and Schramm.

The most relieved Redskin surely was Monte Coleman, the oft-injured linebacker. When he failed to hop off the ground after a tackle, he and others were frightened that so much good work would be scuttled again.

All that happened, it developed, were ribs bruised instead of broken. He eventually returned to the lineup. In the clubhouse, Coleman was the only Redskin who wanted both to laugh and not to in the same breath.