The Redskins failed to win a preseason game before the 1982 season, yet won the Super Bowl. The last two years, they have won seven of nine preseason games, yet failed to make the playoffs. So what are we to make of this year's 3-1 preseason mark? Nothing, that's what.

Coach Joe Gibbs was kind enough to confirm that late Friday night after the Redskins had whipped a near-crippled Los Angeles Rams team in the fourth and mercifully final game of the preseason. In fact, Gibbs was visibly relieved. He and his staff had prepared for four games, they had fretted through injuries to the defensive line, through a one-game disaster for quarterback Mark Rypien, through two sluggish rushing performances, through all the things coaches fret over.

Asked what it all means, Gibbs searched for the right word, "Preseason is probably the most. . . . " Someone offered the word "misleading" and Gibbs said: "Not even that. A week from now it will be kind of like it never existed. It doesn't mean much, it hardly means anything."

On Sunday against the Phoenix Cardinals, it will mean something. The same questions we had six weeks ago when camp began will finally start to be answered. Can the defensive line mount a pass rush? Will the Redskins have to win every game by 31-28? Can Rypien orchestrate the most talented offense this side of the 49ers?

Championship teams are without exception defensive terrors, which is why it's hard to see the Redskins being a championship team right now. Let's start with the secondary. Todd Bowles, Alvin Walton and Clarence Vaughn (if he isn't on injured reserve) are fine at safety. But the team can't afford a single injury to the cornerback trio of Brian Davis, Darrell Green and Martin Mayhew. They could be tested if the pass rush is as ordinary as many suspect it will be.

Rookie linebacker Andre Collins has been everything the team had hoped when it drafted him, and swingman Kurt Gouveia may have had the best camp of any Redskin. Still, Collins is a rookie and the coaches apparently would prefer to bring Gouveia off the bench and start Greg Manusky in the middle.

There is a tendency to look at the Redskin defense as a unit without a natural, the man capable of sacking, stripping, recovering, tackling behind the line, pass covering, generally destroying the morale of an offense by himself. But the Redskins do have that man, and his name is Wilber Marshall; they gave up two No. 1 draft choices and $6 million in salary to get him.

Sometimes coaches, even great ones such as Richie Petitbon and his defensive staff, have to make concessions to accommodate a virtuoso. It's time. Marshall can make this defense a very good one if he's allowed to. The Redskins need a career year from him and he's more than up to it.

His presence could help the defensive line, which will miss the pass rush of Dexter Manley. Yes, that's about all Dexter did the last couple of seasons, but sacks are like home runs. You put up with a guy if he can put Randall Cunningham on his back a couple of times a game.

The Redskins do have some quality depth up front, with Markus Koch and Tim Johnson backing up Charles Mann, Tracy Rocker, Darryl Grant and Fred Stokes. But Rocker and Stokes will be depended upon for the first time.

The offense could rank close to the one in 1983 that scored 541 points. It's all up to Rypien. If he doesn't goof up, the offense will be unstoppable. Imagine using Kelvin Bryant only on third down. Imagine James Wilder, one of the league's leading active rushers, being third, maybe even fourth on the depth chart at running back. Imagine Gerald Riggs being second! Only the 49ers (Roger Craig and Tom Rathman) and Bears (Neal Anderson, Brad Muster, rookie Johnny Bailey and Dennis Gentry) can compare with this group.

And only the 49ers receivers can be put in the same class with The Posse -- Art Monk, Gary Clark and Ricky Sanders. Plus, Jimmie Johnson could be on the verge of becoming Keith Jackson at the H-back spot. The Redskins have so many offensive weapons they can't possible use them all. The top punt returner in the league, Walter Stanley, will barely get any playing time at wide receiver.

All this talent will be operating behind an offensive line that is eight deep. Raleigh McKenzie, perhaps the second-best all-around lineman (after Jim Lachey) isn't even starting. He'll back up at left guard, right guard and center. Joe Jacoby also will come off the bench.

It's all up to the Ripper. The feeling here is it's good he didn't sign the new contract. This is no time for him to be comfortable. Last year he played well down the stretch, leading the team to victories over five non-playoff opponents. He has a lot to prove. He also has every incentive and all the help imaginable to have a great season, the kind the Redskins would have to reward handsomely. After the fact.

The loud, overrated Eagles (they haven't won a playoff game under Buddy Ryan) and aging Giants (Lawrence Taylor and Phil Simms specifically) are capable of being overtaken in the NFC East. And the Redskins are tough once they get to the playoffs; the problem is they haven't been since Super Bowl XXII. It's difficult to see Jack Kent Cooke being a patient man, what with all the Plan B spending the Redskins did in the offseason.

Playing three of the first four games against Phoenix and Dallas should help immensely. And if you're going to have to play the 49ers, might as well catch them early and at home as the Redskins will in Week 2. They will end the season with six of their final seven games against non-playoff opponents. The Giants, Eagles and Redskins are so close it's hard to separate them, but a 10-6 record should be reachable again. And with the new playoff format, so should the postseason.