Washington Redskins Coach Joe Gibbs went to his knees as the Minnesota Vikings' final play unfolded yesterday afternoon at raucous RFK Stadium. As he knelt, Gibbs said a little prayer, uncertain whether his team was headed to the Super Bowl -- or simply to overtime.

When he stood up moments later, he knew.

With one last, crunching hit by cornerback Darrell Green, the Redskins had won the NFC championship game, 17-10, and were headed to Super Bowl XXII Jan. 31 in San Diego. There, they will face the Denver Broncos, who defeated the Cleveland Browns, 38-33, today in the AFC championship.

It will be the Redskins' third Super Bowl appearance of the decade, but their first in four years. They won the Super Bowl after the 1982 season -- the last strike season before this one -- 27-17 over Miami, but lost the next year, 38-9, to the Los Angeles Raiders.

They are going back this year because when their offense sputtered, their defense came to the rescue. Twice in the fourth quarter, holding a slight lead, the Redskins stood their ground when the Vikings drove inside the Washington 10. The first goal-line stand forced the Vikings to kick a field goal. The second defensive effort, at the Washington 6, shut out the Vikings and effectively ended the game.

In between, Doug Williams threw seven yards to wide receiver Gary Clark for the winning touchdown.

Green took a pain-killing shot for his sprained rib cartilage before the game and played all but five defensive plays. He hit Vikings running back Darrin Nelson the instant after Wade Wilson's pass hit Nelson's hands at the goal line on fourth down to end Minnesota's last chance to tie the game. He also held sensational wide receiver Anthony Carter in check.

The Redskins sacked quarterback Wilson eight times, one short of the NFC title game record. They put enough of a scare into Minnesota receivers to take some credit for eight dropped passes. They put in five new defenses -- and several new faces -- just for this game. Each worked. "A lot of guys kind of burst onto the scene today," said middle linebacker Neal Olkewicz. Guys with the names Ravin Caldwell, Kurt Gouveia, Clarence Vaughn.

Gibbs said after the game the Redskins wanted to throw as many defenses at the Vikings as possible. "We tried three-man fronts {lines}, four-man fronts, different sets of linebackers, man-to-man coverage and zones. We were mixing all the time."

Meanwhile, who would have thought Williams could complete just nine passes and still defeat the Vikings, a team that was so good it took the Redskins into overtime the past two times they played? Who would have thought the Redskins would have run for more yards than they passed for, 161 to 119? That Ricky Sanders would get shut out? That some might wonder if Jay Schroeder shouldn't enter the game to try to save it?

"It was an ugly win, for sure," said Clark.

Gibbs said the Redskins unleashed "every big pass, every reverse, every big play we had in the book" for the Vikings. And yet it was a quick improvisation by Clark that turned into the winning touchdown in front of 55,212 in the stadium.

Moving into scoring position on a 43-yard Williams-to-Clark pass with the score 10-10, the Redskins faced third down and six at the Minnesota 7 with little more than five minutes to play. Clark was to run a corner route into the end zone and look for the ball. But the Vikings were playing a zone defense.

"If I ran a corner route, I would have run right into coverage," Clark said. "It would have been a wasted route, because of where their defensive backs lined up."

So Clark did what any receiver on the sandlot would do and changed his mind. He ran straight up the field, veering ever so slightly to the middle of the end zone to find an open area and hoping Williams would read his mind and get the ball to him.

"It's one of those things where you take the glory when it works out and get chewed out if it doesn't," Clark said.

This time, Clark took the glory. On his knees, he looked for the ball, and into his hands came "a Doug Williams bullet." He had a touchdown with 5:15 remaining, and the Redskins had the lead.

This was the Washington offense's finest moment of a dismal second half. The Redskins couldn't muster a first down until that touchdown drive. Williams, who was nine of 26 for 119 yards and only a 35 percent completion percentage, managed three completions in 10 second-half passes until that drive. He injured his throwing shoulder on one run, but never left the game. Gibbs said, however, he didn't even consider putting in Schroeder.

Yet, when Williams was most needed, he was there with the key completion. After the Vikings held the ball for 8 minutes 10 seconds on the opening drive of the game and came away with nothing, Williams led the Redskins on an eight-play, 98-yard drive to a 7-0 lead. Running back Kelvin Bryant caught a 42-yard touchdown pass from Williams with 4:07 left in the first quarter on a drive that included a 28-yard reverse by Sanders.

This was significant, because the Vikings were the team to jump ahead early and gain momentum in their two upset playoff victories at New Orleans and San Francisco. After the first touchdown, with the way the Washington defense was shutting down the scrambling of Wilson and limiting Carter to short yardage (an average of 12 yards) on his seven receptions, the Redskins could have built a fat first-half lead. But Ali Haji-Sheikh missed field goals of 38 and 47 yards, and Williams began misfiring. Slowly but surely, the Vikings worked themselves back into the game, tying it at halftime, 7-7, on wide receiver Leo Lewis' 23-yard scoring reception with 2:00 left.

"At halftime, we should have been up 17-0," said Redskins defensive end Charles Mann. "We were struggling."

In the third quarter, the offensive malaise continued. It was up to the defense to do something. Turnovers were not a big part of this game; there was only one. But when Redskins linebacker Mel Kaufman intercepted a pass by Wilson that was deflected by defensive tackle Dave Butz, the Redskins did take advantage. Haji-Sheikh made a 28-yard field goal with 4:30 left in the quarter to put Washington ahead, 10-7.

Chuck Nelson tied the game again with 10:06 to play with an 18-yard field goal after the first of the two supreme Washington defensive stands.

The Vikings had a first down at the Washington 3. Fullback Rick Fenney gained two yards on first down. Fenney tried the middle for nothing on second down. This set up third and goal at the 1. Rookie running back D.J. Dozier got the call this time, and again tried the middle. The Redskins were ready. Olkewicz slammed into and over the middle of the line, grabbing Dozier's ankles. The line caved in around Dozier, and he was stopped for no gain. On fourth down, the Vikings kicked. Gibbs called this stand "the key" to victory.

Olkewicz said the Redskins were surprised Wilson didn't run around end on one of the plays. Happy, but surprised.

Green missed that series of plays after taking himself out with severe pain in his ribs. He returned for the last series, after Clark's touchdown.

"There was more pressure on the sideline than there was out on the field," Green said.

It looked like overtime (again) when the Vikings took over with 5:04 left and moved on the Redskins as they did the day after Christmas or back in November 1986. Down to the 12 they went with 1:12 to play, then Carter's catch took the ball to the 6. There was 1:05 remaining. Plenty of time for Minnesota. But three straight passes fell incomplete, including the last one to Nelson, and Gibbs' prayer was answered. He was headed to his boyhood home -- San Diego.

It wasn't easy. It wasn't pretty. But in another strike year, the NFC is sending the Redskins to represent it in the Super Bowl.

"I know it was tense out there," Kaufman said, "but you name a game this year that wasn't tense."