Dave Butz, the old man of the National Football League, has been around long enough to know a promising team when he sees it, especially if he is playing on it.

"If they only knew how good they could really be," Butz said yesterday of his Washington Redskins teammates. "This team definitely has the ability to win the Super Bowl. If it will is another question."

There is no one on the Redskins' roster who has participated in more playoff games than Butz, now 37 and the league's oldest active player. The Redskins' NFC semifinal Sunday at 12:30 p.m. at Chicago's Soldier Field will be the 13th playoff game of his 14-year career. He has started all 12 before this one, stretching back to the team's 1976 postseason game.

By now, there is a tendency to say Butz has seen it all. He must have. He is older, wiser and bigger than anyone else on the current Redskins roster. And in what could be his last hurrah, he believes he is on a team that doesn't know its own strength.

"If I had to rank teams, San Francisco would be No. 1, in my opinion, with the Bears and Denver together next," Butz said. "I wouldn't rank us yet. I don't know how we'll do at Chicago. I've never been extremely confident against anyone. I do know that the Bears played us here three years ago and beat us, so we remembered that and beat them last year. Now it's their turn to remember."

Butz, the Redskins' starting left defensive tackle, has one year remaining on a two-year contract he signed before this season for about $950,000. For the record, he said yesterday he plans to come back next season.

"I hope to be back," he said in a telephone interview on the team's day off. "But I might get one of those calls from Coach {Joe} Gibbs in the offseason telling me not to come back next year, too. Right now, it's an unanswered question."

However, he said, "I still have the capability of playing. I can help out."

This has been an average year for Butz, not a great one. Some pass-rushing duties have been taken from him; Butz no longer plays in most nickel situations. He and fellow tackle Darryl Grant come out and are replaced by Markus Koch and Steve Hamilton, two younger men known for their pass-rushing ability.

"They really gave me no reason, except that they've got some younger ball players they want to get in," Butz said.

Not that Butz minds this all that much. He believes the rest has made him "fresher" when he plays.

"Not playing in nickel situations helped me play the run better and play the pass better when they threw on first or second down," he said.

Butz ended the season with 11 quarterback hurries, a few fewer than in past years but only six less than end Dexter Manley, who is known for his pass rush. He was 10th on the team in tackles with 50, his lowest total since records were kept for the first time in 1979.

"This year we didn't have so many runs to our side because Charles {Mann, the Pro Bowl defensive end who plays next to Butz} was doing far better playing the run than before," he said. "I have fewer tackles due to the fact they weren't running to our side.

"My season's been not too bad. I've done what was asked of me . . . I think you would always want to play better. There's always room for improvement."

"He's had a pretty good year," said defensive line coach Torgy Torgeson. "I think he's had better years. But he's still the one we depend on in the middle, that stabilizing force in the middle."

Butz's finest moment of the season came in an instant in the first game back from the strike, against the New York Jets at RFK Stadium. Unable to keep even a glass of water down due to the flu, he was hospitalized the day before the game. He had lost 21 pounds, from 313 to 292. But he checked himself out the morning of the game.

Butz started the game. He finished the game. In between, he made seven tackles and one fourth-quarter sack of quarterback Ken O'Brien that cost the Jets nine yards and took them out of field-goal range. The Redskins won, 17-16. Butz's celebration was short-lived. He was driven back to the hospital and stayed three more nights. The next two games, his play was "subpar," he said. He still wasn't well, but he played.

"You're paid to play," Butz said. "If it's not something that will injure you permanently -- and that's hard to be sure of -- you've got to get up and do it. When I was younger, I watched veterans do that."

Asked what some of his teammates thought of his hospital-bed-to-playing-field maneuver, Butz said, "There's hardly a time that doesn't go by that they say, 'Hey, you're 37. I'm in my 20s. I get tired. Hell, if you can do it, I can do it.' "

Some of his teammates have said they don't understand what makes him tick. Butz's often-menacing, occasionally playful monotone is the verbal equivalent of a quarterback sack. Few players or outsiders approach Butz, so a mystique remains.

Yet he shares some of his teammates' feelings that the Redskins are better than people think. A familiar cry has been emanating from Redskin Park the past few weeks. It's something along the lines of: Nobody appreciates us. The team is 11-4. It won the NFC East by four games. But the players say reporters and fans are overlooking all that and nit-picking at the team's problems.

"People are concerned about us not winning by a large margin," Butz said. "But a win is a win. I know they like to see more domination. But when it's all over no one will remember the scores anyway. All they will remember are the Ws and Ls."

Whether the Redskins win Sunday will be determined, at least partially, by the defensive line and how much pressure it puts on Bears quarterback Jim McMahon, back after missing three games with a pulled hamstring. The Redskins greatly respect McMahon, and need a strong, unified pass rush to both hurry and contain him, Butz said.

Last season, the Bears started 5-foot-9 Doug Flutie against the Redskins. He was intercepted twice in the Redskins' 27-13 win. Naturally, the Redskins wish Flutie still were starting for the Bears.

"Flutie is too short to be playing in the NFL," Butz said. "At the beginning of the game, we started jumping in front of him, and he threw the ball at about our waists. So we decided to stand in front of him the rest of the game. He couldn't get the ball over us."