MIAMI -- It was one of those rare games that looks even better 24 hours later, once the emotion of winning and losing has begun to fade. Memories of what took place in a jewel of a stadium Sunday night will linger a while.

For high-energy thinking, the Redskins and Dolphins might have compared well with anything this side of Spain and the world chess championships over the weekend. A couple of football grandmasters, Don Shula and Joe Gibbs, moved their rooks and knights at a furious and sophisticated pace. At one point, the Redskins struck with the nearly unique Marcus Koch Gambit; the Dolphins eventually prevailed, in part because of a player mighty enough to simply tilt the board his way.

If the Redskins lose home-field advantage in the playoffs, they will not see the 23-21 defeat here as a major reason. Gibbs losing by two points to a Shula-coached team in desperate straits is no disgrace; a defense humbled by Dan Marino can walk off the field in dignity.

Losing to the 3-11 Falcons was inexcusable, on the order of Errol Flynn being outdueled by Phineas T. Bluster. The Redskins also contributed as much as the opposition to defeats by the Rams and Eagles. The Dolphins were just a wee bit better than a Redskins team playing well.

Marino and Jay Schroeder threw 88 passes -- and each was intercepted only once. George Rogers has fumbled so little lately that his first-quarter bobble could be excused, because it cost the team nothing but anxiety.

The Redskins went after Marino with the full-throttle respect due a quarterback who may retire clutching all the worthwhile passing numbers. At 26, his next game of 300-plus yards will allow Marino to slip out of a second-place tie with John Unitas in that career category.

Before the game, Washington's defensive coaches figured that the only way to hit Marino was with their playbook, rumored to be about as thick as a the tome a mechanic thumbs through to cure hiccups in your car.

"We threw everything at him," defensive coordinator Larry Peccatiello said yesterday from Redskin Park.

They threw three-man lines at Marino; they threw five-man lines at Marino; they threw four-man lines with a lineman (the 275-pound Koch) dropping off into coverage.

Marino still threw the winning touchdown pass -- and two others, all to Mark Duper.

The Dolphins offense is structured so that Marino's fragile knees rarely get bumped.

"He's only been sacked something like nine times," Peccatiello said. "And two of those actually were slips. One was a bad snap; another time he tripped over the center's legs {and a grateful lineman tagged him on the ground}."

With Koch backing off the line and checking a running back, the Redskins hoped either a rush alley would develop or Marino would misread the coverage. He did neither, although the pass was incomplete.

The Redskins never put Marino on the ground, and rarely came close enough to verify whether his pregame meal had included onions. Like Schroeder, Marino can throw a 15-yard fastball while skipping backwards.

Both young quarterbacks also are quite adept at intentional incompletions, those under-pressure passes fully meant to sail toward hot dog hucksters. That way, two football tragedies are avoided -- interceptions and sacks.

The Redskins did earn Miami's respect with formations that varied almost with every play. Marino soon abandoned his under-center position and went almost exclusively with the shotgun.

Even on third and one, Marino was in that pass-first setup, the Dolphins being one team with even less running pop than the Redskins this season.

Because the Redskins almost wore a path to the sideline hustling defensive players in and out, at least one witness wondered why Shula did not dust off a play last seen two Super Bowls ago.

When the 49ers substituted several players before each snap, Shula countered with a hurry-up, no-huddle offense. With no time between most plays, the 49ers had to use their defenders in unfamiliar situations.

"We always were ready for that," Peccatiello said. Anxious even.

"If they did that," he said, "it would all but eliminate play calling from the bench. It would be unsettling both ways." And perhaps more for Marino.

The Dolphins stuck to their routine against the Redskins, possibly because the no-huddle tactic had been unsuccessful against the 49ers.

Gibbs is Shula without the jaw that juts far enough to land small planes on. His resourcefulness includes running Schroeder outside a couple of times to keep defenses from outmanning Rogers and Bryant inside.

Shula's imagination can be celebrated by following the Dolphins' No. 11. Jim Jensen's job title is quarterback, but he almost always catches more passes than he throws each season. He also runs under kicks on special teams.

It was the versatile Jensen who caught a third-and-10 pass for the first down that set up Marino's six-yard throw to Duper for the winning touchdown.

Only in the NFL could the Dolphins win Sunday and see their playoff hopes slightly diminish. That's because the permutations they wanted from the competition failed to materialize.

A loss to Washington would have eliminated the Dolphins. Which means that Shula still is doing his job exceptionally in his 25th season.

The essence of coaching is to give your team a chance to win as long as possible, on plays, in games and at the end of seasons and playoffs. Eventually, something splendid happens.