When they couldn't stop Miami quarterback Dan Marino in the fourth quarter Sunday night, the Washington Redskins lost more than a game. They squandered their best chance for home-field advantage in the playoffs since 1984.

In losing, the Redskins gave away an opportunity to control their fate for a home playoff game, lost their best chance for the home field against the Chicago Bears or the wild-card winner and just might have burdened themselves with the toughest task in the league: beating the 49ers in San Francisco.

The Redskins have one wish for Christmas: home-field advantage in the upcoming National Football League playoffs. It's what they've been asking for ever since they won the NFC East title more than two weeks ago. It's what they will be hoping for when they play their regular season finale at Minnesota at 4 p.m. Saturday.

But the Redskins are a confusing bunch for which to buy. You see, last Sunday afternoon, the Bears lost, handing the Redskins the chance to have home-field advantage for at least one playoff game.

Last Sunday night, the Redskins returned the gift.

When they lost to Miami, 23-21, the Redskins (10-4) fumbled their best opportunity to earn the home field for a conference semifinal game Jan. 9 or 10. All they would have had to have done was beat the Vikings (8-6), and they would have been guaranteed to play in RFK Stadium.

Now, they must beat the Vikings and hope the Bears (10-4) lose for the third consecutive week when they play at the Los Angeles Raiders Sunday. Then, the Redskins will have that home playoff date.

But if they lose to the Vikings, or if the Bears win, the Redskins will have to hit the road Jan. 9 or 10. They'll go to San Francisco, New Orleans or Chicago, depending on who wins the NFC West and who wins the wild-card game.

If the wild-card winner is not from the West -- if it's St. Louis or Minnesota -- the Redskins will go to Chicago. If the wild-card survivor is from the West -- if it's the Saints or 49ers -- the Redskins will go to the West champion's city because two teams from the same division (the Saints and 49ers this year, the Redskins and New York Giants last year) cannot play until the conference championship game.

The way things look now, the West champion will be the 49ers (12-2), who have the best record in football. The Saints (11-3) can win the division only if they beat Green Bay and the Los Angeles Rams upset the 49ers.

So, when they dropped four or five possible interceptions, when they couldn't stop Marino's passes to Mark Duper, when they ran out of time and had to try a desperation, 67-yard field goal by Steve Cox, the Redskins may have given themselves the most difficult road any division winner has to get to Super Bowl XXII.

"Besides being a missed opportunity, it was a major disappointment," linebacker Mel Kaufman said yesterday at Redskin Park. "I felt we were one play away from winning that game. It was a major setback. It's an opportunity we simply missed out on. If we do have to go to San Francisco, it will be tough."

General Manager Bobby Beathard: "You hate to be in a situation like that and let it get away from you."

Linebacker Rich Milot: "It bothers you a lot. It's frustrating."

In addition to that sinking feeling of perhaps having to go to San Francisco for the first playoff game, the Redskins also know that no NFC team in the '80s has made it to the Super Bowl without having home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. In 1980, it was Philadelphia; 1981 and 1984, San Francisco; 1982 and 1983, Washington; 1985, Chicago; 1986, New York.

The Redskins still have a sliver of a chance to host two playoff games. If they earn the home field for the first game and win the game, they could host the NFC championship game if the wild-card team upsets the other division winner. (A wild-card team cannot host the championship game.)

Though they cannot be guaranteed home-field advantage throughout the playoffs, the Redskins still like their chances to get to the Super Bowl.

"I know no one's gone to the Super Bowl without {home-field advantage in the '80s}, but then again, this has been a strange year, so maybe we'll change that," middle linebacker Neal Olkewicz said.

"It means we'll be an underdog, and I like being an underdog," said defensive end Charles Mann. "There won't be any pressure on us."

But one wonders if it also means the Redskins can't win the big game. They knew Chicago had lost to Seattle when they ran onto the field at Joe Robbie Stadium the other night, and they could not take advantage of their good fortune.

A question: If they couldn't do it then, will they ever?

"I don't think anybody knows what to think about anybody," Milot said. "We really didn't play a bad game."

Indeed, the Redskins played a consistent four quarters and left the game feeling better about themselves than they have in a while.

"I have a feeling, and I don't know exactly why, that the team has kind of turned around, and that's good," Beathard said. "We didn't win at Miami, but I kind of have a gut feeling that something's turned around. I don't know what I'd call it. Maybe we're getting more serious or excited about the playoffs. If we are in fact pulling together like that, it would be great."

Redskins Notes:

Center Russ Grimm, who underwent arthroscopic surgery on his left knee Nov. 10, worked with the second team in practice yesterday. Coach Joe Gibbs said he will make a decision at the end of the week whether to activate Grimm. If Grimm makes the trip to Minnesota, he will be used in a reserve role, Gibbs said. Jeff Bostic still is the starting center . . . Tight end Clint Didier missed practice with a groin injury.