CHAPEL HILL, N.C., AUG. 11 -- The Washington Redskins had expected the full-bore blitzes and the Red Gun offense and the bruising hits. The Atlanta Falcons had hit them with almost all their best shots tonight, and for three quarters the Redskins survived.

What they hadn't prepared for was a scrambling free agent quarterback who would come off the bench and throw three fourth-quarter touchdown passes to give the Falcons a 31-27 victory in a preseason opener in front of 52,036 at Kenan Stadium.

Gilbert Renfroe -- who played for Winnipeg of the Canadian Football League last season, tried out with several NFL teams and was brought to camp to show his teammates how to run the option offense -- stunned the Redskins with touchdown passes of 22, 7 and 38 yards.

He threw his last one, the 38-yarder, to former Maryland wide receiver James Milling with 2:56 remaining to overcome a team that had led 17-0 early and 27-24 late.

Renfroe rolled left and right, scrambled back and forth and left the Redskins defense panting for breath and running for cover. In doing so, he made a winner of Jerry Glanville in his debut as Falcons coach.

"He played great," Redskins Coach Joe Gibbs said. "He has a real good arm. You have to give him some credit. I think we had a lot of good plays. A lot of guys did good jobs, but we had a lot of big mistakes. We'll find those on the films and learn from them. We have a lot of work to do."

Renfroe got into the game after Chris Miller and Scott Campbell ran the Falcons offense the first three quarters and all he did was complete 10 of 15 passes for 144 yards and the three touchdowns.

Milling was his favorite receiver, catching five passes for 79 yards, including a pair of touchdowns.

The Redskins took a 20-10 lead into the fourth quarter, but when it ended, Renfroe had hit Milling with a 22-yard touchdown pass, Titus Dixon with a seven-yard touchdown pass and Milling again for the winner.

The pass to Dixon gave the Falcons a 24-20 lead with 12:09 remaining. It was his second touchdown pass in 52 seconds, but Stan Humphries brought the Redskins back, throwing a 23-yard touchdown pass to Stephen Hobbs for a 27-24 lead.

Renfroe then calmly led the Falcons back down the field. He completed seven passes in a row at one point and made a remarkable play for the winner. On second down from the Redskins 15-yard line, Renfroe scrambled all the way back to his 38 and flipped a pass to the back of the end zone, where Milling escaped the coverage.

The Redskins had one final chance, but safety Brian Jordan intercepted a Humphries pass with 1:25 left.

The Redskins scored the first 17 points and had several big plays, including a 92-yard kickoff return by rookie Brian Mitchell to open the game. Cornerback Martin Mayhew had a pair of interceptions and safety Alvin Walton forced a fumble.

Mark Rypien played a half and completed eight of 19 for 111 yards before giving way to Humphries, who completed eight of 14 for 96 yards and a touchdown.

The Redskins made several mistakes in the second half, but it was a fumble by James Wilder with 12:14 left that gave Renfroe a chance for his second touchdown pass and appeared to shift the momentum.

"The guy is big and quick and he can really find receivers downfield," Redskins safety Brad Edwards said. "You have these things happen in early preseason games. It seems like there's always going to be someone come out of nowhere and knock you for a loop."

Renfroe refused to take credit for the victory, saying only, "Those weren't first-teamers out there with me, but they played like it. I can't blow this out of proportion. This just means I'll probably get another shot."

Washington coaches will return to Carlisle, Pa., on Sunday and they'll have much to study. For instance, an offense that gained only 243 yards and a defense that gave up 406. The Redskins rushed for just 36 yards and averaged a numbing 1.7 yards per carry. Earnest Byner had half of that yardage on one first-half 18-yard carry.

"I give them credit for showing us a lot of different looks," Rypien said. "This is part of the process. They took the run away and I hit some passes and missed some. I missed Kelvin Bryant once on a touchdown that should have made it 21-0. Little things like that stack up."

The start had been better for the Redskins. In fact, it had been stunning as Mitchell took the opening kickoff on the 8-yard line and sprinted up the middle as a hole opened in the Falcons' coverage. He went the 92 yards virtually untouched and Chip Lohmiller's extra point made it, 7-0.

Mitchell entered this camp as a longshot. He's a converted option quarterback from Southwestern Louisiana and the Redskins discovered him playfully running pass routes during a scouting session in Houston.

"I looked up and the hole was there," he said. "Ricco Labbe laid his man out and I just ran. It became a foot race and I didn't feel like letting a kicker catch me."

A few minutes later, the Redskins made it 14-0 when wide receiver Gary Clark beat cornerback Roland Mitchell to the left corner and Rypien lofted a 22-yard touchdown pass into his hands.

Rypien was four of five for 67 yards on the drive. The Redskins twice converted third-down plays, including a third-and-10 at the 24 when Rypien escaped the blitz and hit Art Monk with a 16-yarder.

The Falcons got the ball back and kept it only five plays. On third and 14 from their 36, Miller threw down the middle and into the hands of Mayhew, the center fielder on the nickle defense. He returned it 15 yards and the Redskins needed seven plays to move 33 yards and give Lohmiller a chance for a 36-yard field goal and a 17-0 lead.

After that Gibbs began to mix his second and third units into the game and the Redskins never had another sustained drive.

Meanwhile, the Falcons made it 17-7 by driving 80 yards in 13 plays. Gene Lang scored on a two-yard run, then as the half ended, Miller hustled the Falcons down to the 38 and Greg Davis nailed a 55-yard field goal to make it 17-10.

The Falcons blew a fake field goal and had a 35-yard pass interference call to allow Lohmiller a 27-yard field goal that made it 20-10 as the fourth quarter began.

Enter Renfroe, who promptly led a 10-play, 78-yard drive. He scrambled away from what rush the Redskins could muster to hit Dixon for a 25-yard gain, then on third and 11 at the 22, he found Milling for a touchdown pass.

On the Redskins' next play, defensive end Ben Thomas separated Wilder from the football, and safety Elbert Shelly scooped it up for the Falcons and ran it down to the 7. Renfroe needed one play to get Atlanta the lead, hitting Dixon, who had cut in front of safety Edwards, on a seven-yard touchdown pass. That came with 12:09 left in the fourth quarter.

The Redskins took 4:03 to get the lead back. Humphries led a six-play, 65-yard drive that ended with the 23-yard touchdown pass to Hobbs. He hit Jimmie Johnson for gains of 21 and 11 yards and Hobbs for 13. But Renfroe had time for one more drive.

"We ended up with everything we wanted," Glanville said. "Those last two minutes were a lot of fun, and I couldn't be any prouder."