The Washington Redskins have the games circled on their calendars and highlighted in their memories.

Two years ago, they went to Candlestick Park in mid-November and were neatly tucked away by the San Francisco 49ers. They considered that a turning point and they were right: While the 49ers rolled toward Super Bowl XXIII, the Redskins lost three of their next four and didn't make the playoffs.

A year ago, the Dallas Cowboys came to RFK Stadium and grabbed their only win of the season. The Redskins would win six of their last seven, but that inexcusable loss kept them from the playoffs.

Spin ahead to 1990, and the Redskins (5-4) say they've again reached such a turning point -- at 1 p.m. today at RFK Stadium against the New Orleans Saints (4-5).

The Redskins are coming off an ugly 28-14 loss at Philadelphia that infuriated Coach Joe Gibbs and sent five Redskins off the field on stretchers. The Redskins say they'll long remember the taunting words of the Eagles ringing in their ears.

Gibbs challenged his players with those and other words, saying essentially that their playoff hopes could be decided this week when they play two NFC opponents in a five-day stretch -- the Saints, and the Cowboys on Thanksgiving Day at Texas Stadium.

After that, they'll play only one more NFC team (Chicago) as four teams jockey for three wild-card slots. The weekend begins with the Redskins and Eagles tied at 5-4 and the Saints and Green Bay Packers a game back.

The Saints could in effect move ahead of the Redskins today and every NFC game is all the more important since the Packers have an inside track for one of the three spots. Green Bay begins the day with the easiest remaining schedule -- its final seven games coming against opponents with a combined .375 winning percentage. The Eagles are the lone winning team left on their schedule.

The Eagles have the toughest path, with their seven remaining games against teams with a .578 percentage. The Redskins have the next-toughest at .546, the Saints next at .484.

So the Redskins say a pair of NFC victories this week could go a long way toward reestablishing themselves as a playoff team. But one more slip-up like the one in Philadelphia and they may again watch the playoffs from their living rooms and have to rethink a lot of their decisions in recent years.

"Everybody is going to have to step forward and pull together," Gibbs said. "Given the conditions, I don't know when we've faced a bigger challenge."

The Redskins had perhaps their longest injury list ever after Monday's game and placed Gerald Riggs, Walter Stanley and, yesterday, Stan Humphries on injured reserve. A fourth, return man Joe Howard, won't play today after suffering a concussion.

But the list was much longer Monday night and the Redskins welcomed back linebacker Greg Manusky (knee) and backup quarterback Jeff Rutledge (thumb) more quickly than expected.

However, their most important returnee has been quarterback Mark Rypien, set to make his first start today since injuring a knee in Week 3 against Dallas.

Rypien has looked good in practice, but the Redskins say there probably won't be any miracles -- he at times will look a lot like a man who hasn't played in two months.

Still, he's the best the Redskins have. He wasn't at his best in 2 1/2 games this season but still threw four touchdown passes and no interceptions; since he departed, Washington quarterbacks have thrown five touchdown passes and 11 interceptions (eight interceptions the last three weeks).

The Redskins were manhandled by the Eagles' defense, which scored two touchdowns, set up two and knocked starter Rutledge down about a dozen times. Gibbs responded by benching tackle Ed Simmons and guard Russ Grimm and naming Mark Adickes and Joe Jacoby to start today.

Simmons and Grimm were both banged up after the Eagles game, but even when they returned to practice Thursday, Adickes and Jacoby remained with the first unit.

"Our defense tried to take control of the game," Gibbs said, "but when you turn the ball over like that . . . That's really been our problem, and it's really hurt us the last four weeks. We're either going to remedy that, or we're going to have a tough time."

The Redskins were plus-nine in takeaway/giveaway ratio the first four games and plus-seven after six games. Since then, they're minus-eight, the defense having intercepted one pass and forced three fumbles while the offense has turned the ball over 14 times.

Their challenge this week is different. The Saints have 27 turnovers, including eight three weeks ago against the Detroit Lions. But a lot of those mistakes came early in the season before they traded for young quarterback Steve Walsh -- who was the Cowboys' starter in the 1989 victory at RFK -- and started giving the ball to Ironhead Heyward.

Wasn't this the season the running game was going the way of leather helmets? "I never believed that," Saints Coach Jim Mora said.

All the division leaders, with the exception of the 49ers, have big-time running games and the Bears actually have more rushing than passing yards. Coincidentally, the Saints have played their best ball since cranking up their rushing game and playing conservatively in the lap of a defense that leads the NFC with 27 sacks, including four by linebacker Pat Swilling against Tampa Bay last week.

Heyward was a blocking back the first seven games and got only 11 carries. In two games since, he has rumbled for 278 yards and a 7.1-yard average. The rap against him has been that he's too fat, what with 260 or so pounds wrapped on a 5-11 frame.

The Saints may have thought that as well, but the last two weeks he has shown them big men can run too, and are harder to tackle.

"I guess you have to have some momentum when you hit him," Redskins linebacker Monte Coleman said. "He's going to outweigh most guys on the field, so you just hit him and don't think about it."

Mora said: "He's a unique individual. To be able to do the things he does at his weight is unusual. I still think you've got to run the football to be a good team. I don't necessarily agree with some of that talk that was going around earlier in the season. Steve has had a crash course since we got him {in Week 4}, and it has helped him not to have to go in and throw the ball and make the big play to win."

The challenge for the Redskins may not be so much the Saints or Walsh or Heyward, but themselves. One week they rally to defeat the Lions in overtime, then they follow by being badly outplayed in Philadelphia.

All of sudden, they're where they were about this time in 1988 and 1989 when they didn't win the one or two games that could have put them in the playoffs.

"If we're going to do it, we have to do it now," Gibbs said. "It has been a tough week for us, but that's the way this game is. You go from a tremendous exhilarating high the week before, a fantastic comeback and all that, to a game like Philadelphia. That's the biggest swing I've had, from the point of feeling great to a terrible loss with a lot of injuries."