One of their lowest of weeks ended on the highest of notes yesterday as quarterback Mark Rypien's return surpassed all expectations. And the Washington Redskins surpassed some expectations themselves in rolling over the New Orleans Saints, 31-17, before 52,573 at RFK Stadium.

Rypien threw four touchdown passes, including two to Gary Clark, as the Redskins gained 423 yards and scored on five straight possessions between the end of the first quarter and the end of the third.

Clark scored on passes of eight and 19 yards, Art Monk caught a seven-yarder and Kelvin Bryant clutched a three-yarder as Rypien tied a career high for touchdown passes and shredded what had been one of the NFL's stingiest defenses. Clark caught eight passes for 131 yards -- his fourth 100-yard game of the season.

Rypien's performance -- 26 of 38 for 311 yards and no interceptions -- would have been dazzling enough under almost any circumstances, but was even more so because it came in his first game since injuring a knee in the RFK victory over Dallas eight weeks ago.

His three practices this past week were the first since the injury, and he was thrown back into the starting lineup only after Stan Humphries and Jeff Rutledge were both knocked out of Monday night's loss at Philadelphia with injuries.

Rypien gave the Redskins a lift when they needed it most. They'd had nine players hurt in Philadelphia and were outhustled and outhit enough by the Eagles to receive a stinging tongue-lashing from Coach Joe Gibbs. They were also in danger of dropping back into the pack of the five or six NFC teams competing for the three wild-card slots.

"I don't think he can play any better than that," center Jeff Bostic said of Rypien. "He was the closest thing to a surgeon you can find. That's as sharp as you'd ever want a quarterback to be.

"That Monday night game served as a wakeup call for our offense. We laid a golden egg up there, and hopefully this game will get us going."

The Redskins (6-4) go to Dallas on Thanksgiving Day still tied with the Eagles (6-4 after winning yesterday in Atlanta) for the best record among wild-card contenders, although the Redskins hold an edge in tiebreakers.

The Washington offense virtually gave the Eagles four touchdowns, but against the Saints it did almost everything right, playing crisply with a new quarterback and a restructured front line.

Gibbs also went back to the Posse from the start, and Monk, Clark and Ricky Sanders caught 17 passes. Monk caught four and became the third man in NFL history to catch 700 passes (now with 702). He trails only Steve Largent (819) and Charlie Joiner (750), both of whom are retired.

The Redskins didn't believe they'd be able to run the ball until they connected on a few passes to get an aggressive Saints defense backed up a bit, and it worked that way. Earnest Byner, getting all the carries with Gerald Riggs injured, had his best game as a Redskin, running 26 times for 116 yards.

He's the first Redskins rusher to gain 100 yards since Week 5 of last season, and his 116 is the most since Riggs had 221 in Week 2 last season.

All of this offense finally made life easier for a defense that has been excellent almost every week. They'd virtually controlled the Eagles, only to watch the offense give it way. Today, they got interceptions by Todd Bowles and Darrell Green, recovered a fumble and then watched as their offensive teammates drove 49, 83, 59 and 85 yards for scores.

"What was the difference?" safety Bowles asked. "The difference was that the offense scored some points."

Meanwhile, the Redskins didn't turn over the ball for the first time in a month. Their quarterbacks had thrown eight interceptions the last three games, but Rypien maintained a perfect season -- seven touchdown passes and no interceptions in 123 throws.

"I'd have to say I'm a little surprised to come back this sharp," Rypien said. "I had thrown it good in practice this week and they say you practice like you play. Once I got out there and things started going, I felt great.

"The line did a great job. I got knocked down a couple of times, but that was about it. I always bounced back up."

His day started badly. Clark and Sanders dropped catchable balls on his first two throws, and Ralf Mojsiejenko squibbed a punt 24 yards to set up the Saints at the Washington 32.

They scored in seven plays, with Craig "Ironhead" Heyward and Rueben Mayes picking up 26 yards before quarterback Steve Walsh hit Brett Perriman with a 16-yard touchdown pass.

But that was about all the Redskins did wrong. They scored on their next five possessions, Rypien hit almost everything, and when Bryant caught a touchdown pass 45 seconds into the fourth quarter, they were in control, 31-10.

"We just couldn't stop them," Saints Coach Jim Mora said. "They must have converted 95 percent of their third-down situations {actually 73 percent}. They completely dominated us, their offense against our defense."

Linebacker Pat Swilling said: "They took advantage of our defensive backs. This is one of the worst defensive displays we've ever had."

After the Saints' first touchdown, Rypien took the Redskins 58 yards in 15 plays, but the drive stalled at the 22. Chip Lohmiller's 39-yard field goal made it 7-3 with 3:18 left in the first quarter.

The Saints ran three plays and punted, then were called for holding and punted again. When the Redskins took over, they were on the New Orleans 49 and needed seven plays to take a 10-7 lead.

Rypien threw to Byner for gains of 13 and six and to Clark for 17. Byner ran for six and a holding penalty put the ball on the 8-yard line. From there, Clark cut in front of cornerback Toi Cook and Rypien hit him in the numbers with 13:42 left in the second quarter.

The Saints drove for a field goal to make it 10-6, but with 4:12 remaining, the Redskins went into their two-minute offense and drove 83 yards in 14 plays. Rypien audibled out of running plays "six or seven times" and suggested the play that turned into a seven-yard pass to Monk alone in the left corner of the end zone with seven seconds left.

The Saints took the second-half kickoff and drove to the Washington 36 and on third and four they tried an inside handoff to Gill Fenerty. It might have fooled the Redskins except that Jumpy Geathers swiped at the ball, knocked it to the ground and Fred Stokes fell on it at the Washington 41.

Rypien threw to Jimmie Johnson for 20 on first down, Byner gained 18 on a delay and two on a sweep. Then on second and eight, Rypien pump-faked in the direction of Clark. Cook bought the fake, moved up and Clark ran past him and caught the pass in stride to make it 24-10 with 9:27 left in the third quarter.

The Saints again moved the ball, getting to the Washington 27, where on second and six Heyward threw an option pass that fluttered to Bowles at the 15.

"He'd moved laterally on sweeps before that," Bowles said. "He didn't this time and I saw the tight end coming down the field. I just stayed back and there it was."

The Redskins drove 85 yards in 13 plays covering 6:57 for a 31-10 lead.

Clark turned a short pass into a 34-yard gain and Rypien threw to Sanders for eight and Monk for 14. Byner picked up 15 to the 12 and one to the 11 before making a one-handed catch at the 2. On third down, Rypien lobbed for Bryant.

The Saints came into the game having dominated teams on the ground the past two weeks. But after falling behind, they were forced to pass and Heyward finished with 57 yards on 13 carries.

They also led the NFC in sacks, and although Rypien was knocked down a few times, he wasn't sacked.

"I'm really proud of our football players," Gibbs said.

"We had a short week after an awful experience on Monday, and you've got to give them credit. We played a darn good football team and played one of our best games. Rypien bounced back and showed what he was made of.

"We did a good job across the board."