The Washington Redskins probably knew of dozens of ways they could lose games this season. Randall Cunningham could make a big play or Earnest Byner could drop a touchdown pass or, one day, the Redskins might simply show up without any emotional pop.

Those things happen to teams almost all the time in the NFL and they have happened to the Redskins this year. But what they could not have dreamed is what has happened three times in their last five games: They have been whipped at the line of scrimmage.

The New York Giants did it three weeks ago, the Philadelphia Eagles did it two weeks ago and the Dallas Cowboys did it Thursday in a 27-17 victory at Texas Stadium.

When it happened against the Giants, Coach Joe Gibbs got mad and let his players know it. He warned that they aren't good enough to play without being physically and emotionally prepared. The 49ers or Giants occasionally can do that because they have enough impact players -- Joe Montana, Ronnie Lott, Lawrence Taylor -- who can single-handedly change the course of a game.

Not the Redskins. Their strength comes from playing smoothly and consistently and firing on all cylinders. When the Redskins were outplayed by the Eagles, Gibbs got even madder.

Yet it happened again, this time against the Cowboys, an up-and-coming team but one the Redskins should have beaten.

This is the weekend the Redskins hope to rest up after playing three times in 11 days. This is the weekend they can count their blessings, because at 6-5 they likely need to beat only Indianapolis and New England to get into the playoffs.

But they have failed to meet their other challenges, beating only one team with a winning record (Philadelphia in Week 5, although the Eagles were struggling at 1-3 at the time) and losing three of four to NFC East rivals Philadelphia and New York.

This is the weekend the Redskins will spend considering the dark possibility that they may not be as good as they thought they would be this season, and that after going 23-20 since Super Bowl XXII they may be just an old and declining team badly in need of a transfusion of young players.

It's one thing to fail to meet the challenges of the 49ers or Giants. The Redskins knew that with problems at cornerback and quarterback, they were not ready to play at that level.

It's something else to lose to Buddy Ryan and his careless Eagles, and yet another to lose to the young Cowboys, especially after rallying to seemingly get control of the game in the third quarter.

"At this point, I think we're still in it," said defensive end Charles Mann, who honestly seemed confused about this latest loss. "Our goal this year was to get to the playoffs, and we can still do that. We've got Miami, Chicago and Buffalo left on our schedule, and it won't be easy. If we want to make something of this season, we have to do it. We can do better than we've showed. For some reasons, we're just not getting it done."

What Mann and the Redskins cling to is the dream that they will get hot in December and that they are a veteran team that will be at its best when it needs to be.

They could be right. The Redskins under Gibbs have played their best football in December (24-8) and had tremendous stretch runs to get to the playoffs in 1982, 1983 and 1987. Once Gibbs and the Redskins have gotten into the postseason tournament, they have done well, winning 11 of 14 games and losing in the first round only once.

"The one thing that gives you hope is we know we haven't played our best," Mann said. "If we'd played our best ball and couldn't win, you'd worry about that. We haven't played our best -- by far."

Quarterback Mark Rypien will get much of the heat, and deserves some of it after completing 26 of 54 passes for 267 yards on Thursday. He missed receivers a number of times and was lucky to have thrown only one interception, his first of the season.

He also was put in the worst of situations after the Redskins gained six yards on the ground in the first half. The Cowboys felt so confident their front four could stop the run that they dropped seven defenders into pass coverage.

That allowed them to play soft coverage to take deep patterns away, and Rypien settled for the underneath stuff. The Posse -- Gary Clark, Art Monk and Ricky Sanders -- caught 18 passes, but averaged only nine yards per catch. That, in turn, left the Redskins' defense on the field far too long (nearly 35 minutes), and as Mann said, "It seemed we were out there all day."

Had Rypien burned the Cowboys a couple of times, things might have been better for the Redskins. But the bigger problem was that they couldn't punch holes in a front four that statistically is one of the NFL's worst.

"We had things we thought would be big plays, but they took it away from us," Rypien said. "They played us soft across the board. We got ourselves in trouble by not getting third and short. We had a lot of third and long. We were just a step off all day. You'd like to control the game, especially when you're up 17-10. You'd like to play good, hard-nosed football, but they definitely were able to take some things away."

Gibbs said: "We've got to find out about some things. We've got to see if we can find some consistency. When we don't run and can't stop the run, it's a problem. We're still going to find out if we're a good football team. We're hit and miss in so many different areas."

He refused to say that playing three times in 11 days contributed to the loss.

"It was a tough stretch, I know that," he said. "We'll take a breath of fresh air and come back and see what we can do down the stretch."

What seemed to stun the Redskins was how it happened. They fell behind 10-0 in the first quarter, but by the middle of the third, had a 17-10 lead. Then Dallas's James Dixon returned a kickoff 47 yards, Troy Aikman hit a couple of big passes and running back Emmitt Smith was virtually unstoppable.

The Cowboys finished as the team that won the fight inside, rushing for 162 yards, 132 by Smith.

"I just couldn't believe it," Redskins defensive tackle Eric Williams said. "It's so hard to put into words. It's disbelief and disappointment. We have to bounce back, and there's no doubt in my mind that we will. I don't know if we were tired. Maybe the mental preparation took a toll, but it's always a challenge this time of the year. This is the NFL and you either adapt to things or you don't make it."

Rypien said: "Each and every one of us needs to take a look at ourselves. We've got a game against Miami {a week from Sunday} and we've got to protect our home turf. It's not a panic situation, but we have to rise up and make some plays. Maybe this weekend will be good because we'll have time to think about things."