SAN FRANCISCO, SEPT. 15 -- The Washington Redskins finally have found an opponent that brings no asterisk to the line of scrimmage. Since the first day of training camp, the Redskins have finished every game and every scrimmage by saying something like: "It's nice, but. . . . "

That changes at 4 p.m. EDT Sunday when they trot onto the field at Candlestick Park to take on the San Francisco 49ers.

Far from last week's 31-0 Washington victims, the Phoenix Cardinals, the 49ers are the team by which others are measured, having won back-to-back Super Bowls and 25 of their last 28 games.

No psych jobs this week at Redskin Park, where coaches clicked on the VCRs and watched the 49ers work.

"We'll know a lot more about our football team after this week," Coach Joe Gibbs said. "Every team in our league can gauge themselves by how they do against the 49ers."

Assistant head coach Richie Petitbon walked out of one film session and shook his head. "They've got three certain Hall-of-Famers {Joe Montana, Jerry Rice and Ronnie Lott}," he said. "Some franchises don't have three Hall-of-Famers in their history and they've got three on their team at one time. Those guys make plays for you. They make the difference between winning and losing."

Indeed, the Redskins respect the 49ers on many levels, none more than the ability to maintain a high level of play through an entire decade. Montana and Lott are the only 49ers who started all four Super Bowl victories and they still make up the soul of the 1990 team.

Both proved that again Monday night as the 49ers rallied to beat the New Orleans Saints, 13-12. Lott forced a fumble and intercepted two passes. Montana led a fourth-quarter drive for Mike Cofer's winning 38-yard field goal.

Between them, the 49ers and Redskins have won the last three Super Bowls and six of the last nine. The difference lately has been that the 49ers won the last two Super Bowls while the Redskins didn't make the playoffs. The 49ers have turned their roster over and continued to win. Only five players remain from their victory in Super Bowl XVI and only 11 from Super Bowl XIX. This winning-while-in-transition hasn't been lost on Gibbs or the Redskins.

"What's amazing about their success is that everything in this league is geared to take you the other way," Gibbs said. "It's geared for parity. You draft last if you do well. It's one of the few businesses where the better you do the more restraints are put on you. They've done it by being resourceful, spending money."

Few teams have been more active in signing Plan B free agents than the 49ers and few teams spend more on scouting and salaries. A year ago, they added a pair of savvy veterans, linebacker Matt Millen and nose tackle Jim Burt, and both played well down the the stretch.

This year, they did about the same thing, adding Plan B free agents at several positions, including safety, where they lured Dave Waymer away from New Orleans and at nose tackle where they got Fred Smerlas from Buffalo.

"Plan B has helped teams like the 49ers," Gibbs said. "They work hard, spend money and know who they want."

Still, there has to be something more. The Redskins too have been active in Plan B and spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on scouting.

Gibbs said he has wondered how some teams are able to maintain a high level of play over a long period of time. One theory has long held that teams must alter to some extent every year because whether personnel is changed or not, the group dynamics, motivations and such always change anyway.

"I don't know if I agree with that," Gibbs said. "What you have to do is pick good people, pick the right 47 people. Out of that . . . some people are going to get beat out. Some guys get older, some guys get hurt. I don't know of any football team that had the same chemistry as the year before.

"When you get real good like the 49ers have, there's going to be a lot of carry-over. It was like that for us in '82 and '83. We had certain leaders and guys you could count on. It's a good feeling as a coach knowing that when you walk out on the field you'll see Joe Theismann, John Riggins and Dexter Manley. You knew there were certain things you could count on."

Gibbs said that even in the Theismann-Riggins years the Redskins changed substantially year to year.

"Each one of those teams had something different driving them," he said. "In 1982, that team was just scared to death and trying to win a game. Went 0-4 in preseason, people writing bad things. We were just trying to survive. In 1983, it was a thing where the team wanted to go back and show everybody it wasn't a fluke. Very sound team. In 1984, things started to get a little shaky, but we won the division. Lost a lot of guys and it started to show up. You have a different challenge every year. If I was the 49ers, what you say this year is easy: 'Hey, we've got a chance to make history, do something no one else has done.' For us, the fact is we're trying to get back to the playoffs and you say that. We've spent two years watching everybody else play."

But the '90 Redskins, who have had a quiet camp and are healthy except for defensive end Fred Stokes's left shoulder, seem to be off to a better start than the 49ers.

They barely beat the Saints after putting together their offensive line late in camp. Center Jesse Sapolu and guard Guy McIntyre were holdouts and tackle Harris Barton had a rough adjustment to center last week. Tackle Steve Wallace, who'll go against Charles Mann this week, had a tough week, whistled four times for false starts and burned again and again by linebacker Rickey Jackson.

So Wallace probably won't be surprised if he looks up Sunday and finds Wilber Marshall lined up alongside Mann and aiming at Montana.

"We're not where we'd like to be," 49ers Coach George Seifert said.

But his players have trouble hiding their frustration with occasionally having to apologize for a victory that wasn't clear-cut enough.

"I really don't think we're struggling," Rice said. "Everybody expects so much of us and everything's not always going to be sweet. I feel we're playing good football and as the season progresses we're going to get better."