From being down and dangerously close to out two weeks ago, the Redskins have advanced to the point at which victories have taken the place of excuses. Yesterday's triumph over the Bears wasn't only big, it was a must. A loss would have returned the Redskins to the win-one-lose-one roller coaster they've been riding since September.

"We haven't had ourselves in a position the last 2 1/2 years to play a game of this importance," center Jeff Bostic said. "We're playing the way we thought we would earlier. What we've done these last two weeks is put ourselves in a position where the Chicagos, the 49ers, the Giants are now having to say, 'Uh oh, here they come.' We're getting ourselves in a position to do something."

Forget all the playoff permutations; the Redskins are a lock for postseason. A victory over hapless New England Saturday in Foxboro, Mass., will assure that. The Redskins are in a position to do something more than make the playoffs; they're putting themselves in a position to arrive there playing well and with some momentum.

A team that wins when its quarterback throws five interceptions deserves to feel as good as the Redskins did yesterday. So does a team that holds the league's best rushing attack to 107 yards on the ground. So does a team that holds a division winner to no touchdowns. So does a team that runs the ball as well as Earnest Byner and the Hogs did against one of the league's best defenses.

It was like old times at RFK Stadium yesterday. Tough defense, rugged running, zealous special teams play, Redskins win. "That's exactly what it felt like, old times," Darryl Grant said. "A taste of those days when each and every week we'd have a tough game and get a win over a top-notch opponent. That'll never happen to the Bears again. A team beat them with as many interceptions as we had and as many penalties as we had. If we can win under those circumstances against a team like that . . . "

To underscore how improbable it was for the Redskins to beat the Bears yesterday, consider one stat: Since 1982, in games in which the Bears have allowed 17 points or fewer, the opposition had won only once, and it took a call reversal on the final play for the Packers last season to do that.

When a quarterback throws five interceptions his team is supposed to lose, plain and simple. Fortunately for the Redskins, every interception was on the other side of midfield, so though drives were stopped, the Bears were not in the shadow of the goal line. Still, the Redskins' defense was under an inordinate amount of pressure.

Gibbs publicly thanked his defense for saving his job, though surely he was jesting. Defensive coach Richie Petitbon went frequently to an eight-man front to stop Neal Anderson, perhaps the best back in football. Bears quarterback Jim Harbaugh has been underrated all season, going 173 consecutive passes without throwing an interception until yesterday. The Redskins felt Harbaugh couldn't beat them, but Anderson could.

The defensive game plan was executed to perfection, despite all the turnovers. Time after time, the defensive team would trudge onto the field, playing from behind the first three quarters. "We'd tell each other, 'Don't get depressed and down about the events that are taking place,' " Grant said.

Those "events" Grant spoke of with a slight smile and raised eyebrow were the interceptions. One year after Mike Ditka delivered his infamous can't-cover-anybody-won't-win-another-game tirade following a Rypien passathon, the Bears looked as if they could cover everybody.

But the defense kept coming up with critical plays that became even more special when it was over. On third and four, Alvin Walton struggled to stop Bears receiver Glen Kozlowski inches from a first down. Instead of continuing a drive that may have resulted in a touchdown, Chicago had to settle for a field goal.

On third and nine, safety Brad Edwards dragged Brad Muster to the ground less than a yard from a first down, forcing the Bears to kick a field goal from in close instead of continuing the drive. There were any number of relatively unnoticed plays that allowed the Redskins to hang around until Grant could force the fumble that essentially won the game.

"You practice the rake drill, raking the ball from an offensive player's hands, all the time," Grant said. "Sometimes you can go a year and nothing happens. Then, sometimes, you can rake it out at the most important time."

The turnover that might just have made the Redskins' season came with four minutes to play. Once Grant pried it loose, the ball bounced for several seconds between the legs of Wilber Marshall, who looked everywhere for it but straight down. Greg Manusky tried to recover and run with it, but lost it. Todd Bowles flopped on it deep in Chicago territory. Chip shot for Chip.

"New life," Marshall said.

Some of the Bears, understandably, were fuming. "It was a loss we shouldn't have had because I think we're better than they are," Harbaugh said. Now doesn't that sound like something the Redskins were saying several weeks ago? When December rolls around, the better team is the one that proves it.

When December started, few would have given the Redskins much of a chance to beat the Dolphins, Bears and Bills, even with all three games at home. Now, the Redskins are two-thirds of the way there. At 8-5, this team isn't the 49ers or Giants yet, but yesterday's victory probably enabled them to turn the corner for the first time since Super Bowl XXII.

"What we're doing is getting over a downer," Marshall said. "We've been on a roller coaster; win one, take it easy, win another one. Finally, we had to say, 'Hey, look at the talent we have here. We have to make it happen.' The coaches can only help get you ready, the players have to do it. What happened was we took control of our team."