Even now, it seems somewhat incredible that the Washington Redskins lost to the Philadelphia Eagles on Sept. 17, 1989. It was a warm day at RFK Stadium, and in the teams' second game of the season, the Redskins jumped on Philadelphia for first-half leads of 20-0, 27-7 and 30-14. Even with 3:06 to play in the game, they led, 37-28.

The final score, of course, was Eagles 42, Redskins 37.

Joe Gibbs yesterday called it "the toughest" defeat he has endured in his nine-plus seasons as the Redskins' coach. Mark Rypien, Washington's starting quarterback that afternoon, was so overwrought he decided not to attend a dinner with Vice President Dan Quayle that night. Everybody associated with the Redskins felt awful for running back Gerald Riggs, whose fumble with 57 seconds left is recalled far more than his club-record, 221-yard rushing performance.

That was the fumble linebacker Al Harris recovered, then handed to safety Wes Hopkins, who rambled from the Eagles 19-yard line to the Redskins 4 before wide receiver Ricky Sanders chased him down. On the next play, quarterback Randall Cunningham fired a game-winning touchdown pass to tight end Keith Jackson.

"I felt terrible," said Riggs, whose sprained arch kept him out of the November rematch and pushed his first chance for a payback to Sunday at RFK Stadium. "I look forward to it this time."

What few seem to remember about last year's game at RFK is that the Redskins did almost whatever they wished in the early stages. On the first play from scrimmage, Rypien threw an 80-yard touchdown pass to Gary Clark. On the Redskins' next offensive play, Riggs ran 41 yards for a touchdown. It was not unlike the Redskins' game at RFK against the Eagles in 1988, when Washington's first two possessions resulted in touchdowns.

Only this time, instead of being held to a field goal the rest of the way, the Redskins struck again before the game was 10 minutes old -- Rypien throwing a nine-yard touchdown pass to Earnest Byner.

"Everything we had was going just like we planned," Sanders said.

The Redskins slowed somewhat in the second quarter, but still led by 30-14 at halftime. It was in the third quarter that the game began to turn. Philadelphia drove 92 yards for a touchdown that made the score 30-21 after three quarters.

Washington's ensuing possession ended with Rypien fumbling on a sack by Jerome Brown. Safety Andre Waters recovered the ball and the Eagles moved within 30-28 early in the fourth quarter. But even though the Redskins committed another turnover the next time they had the ball and retained the lead only because Luis Zendejas missed a 33-yard field goal, assistant head coach/defense Richie Petitbon remembered thinking things were okay.

"This sounds silly, but I thought we were in control of that game the whole way," he said. "I never really thought we were going to lose the thing, and they got awfully close. Maybe we played a little soft, and we didn't play very well when we played soft. It was just a strange set of events, and until it actually happened, I really didn't think we were going to lose."

The first strange event came after the Redskins increased their lead to 37-28 on a pass to Art Monk with 3:06 left. Philadelphia drove to Washington's 2, where Cunningham lobbed a pass into a crowd of five players in the back of the end zone. Mike Quick outfought fellow wide receiver Cris Carter and Redskins defensive backs Darrell Green, Brian Davis and Todd Bowles for what was ruled a touchdown. A replay failed to detect what the Redskins still claim to be Quick's foot being out of bounds.

It was "clear as day," Green said. "That was as blown a {call} as I've ever seen the refs make."

Then came Riggs's fumble, which occurred three plays after he had run 58 yards from the Redskins 20.

"It was just an off tackle to the right," offensive tackle Jim Lachey said.

But guard Raleigh McKenzie got knocked into Riggs and suddenly Riggs didn't have the ball. Harris did. And then Hopkins did. "In bringing {Harris} down," Lachey said, "I had my hand on the ball and I thought he was down and the play was over, but then to get up and look down the field and see the guy sweeping down the sideline, it was like, 'Hey, wait a minute, what's going on here?' "

Said Sanders: "I didn't really see it. I was on the other side, trying to hold off {cornerback} Eric Allen. And I looked up and I saw {Hopkins} running down the field. Out of instinct I went after him. I was just trying to get the ball, strip the ball. I was thinking I could be the hero."

Instead, Cunningham ended up the hero. And on the same day he signed a five-year contract worth about $18 million, he walked off the field with a career-best 447 yards passing, five touchdowns and a victory.

"It was the most bizarre and exhausting game I've ever played in my life," he said. "I know they don't want that to happen this year."

Or any year.

"I must have played that game over twenty or thirty times in my mind just going down the road to get to home," said Rypien, who was sacked and fumbled on Washington's final play. "Then my wife reminded me to get ready for the dinner" with Quayle.

That was too much.

"You don't want to say anything that will come back to haunt you about yourself or about what had occurred or about the other team," Rypien said. "It was frustrating the way we had lost and I just wanted to kind of keep to myself about that."

Rypien's apologies must have been accepted. He was invited to, and attended, a White House dinner Thursday night. But he, Riggs and McKenzie still remember how hard it was to prepare for the next game.

"You wondered how you were ever going to get ready for next week after something like that," Riggs said.

Rypien said that the Redskins went through their light Monday workout like zombies.

"We still had that feeling of unbelief," McKenzie said. "You can't believe what happened and then after you watch the film, you shake your head and you still can't believe it. It was something that sticks with you a long time."

For more than a year, maybe?

"I'm sure during the course of Sunday's game it will stick out," McKenzie said. "Especially if we get ahead. We'll be thinking: 'Hey, we can't let up on these guys. We have to keep on, keep on rolling.' This time we want to get on top and stay on top."