The Redskins and Bears had slugged it out for almost three hours yesterday when Washington defensive tackle Darryl Grant slapped his hand toward the belly of Chicago fullback Brad Muster.

Grant said later he "was reaching for any piece of him I could get." What he got was the football, and what he'd made was the biggest play of a long, bruising afternoon that ended with the Redskins defeating the Bears, 10-9, before 53,920 at RFK Stadium.

Grant made the play that turned one final corner for the Redskins, who had trailed all game and appeared headed for defeat when Chip Lohmiller's 54-yard field goal try fell a foot short with 4:16 to go.

But the Redskins had barely gotten to their sideline when Muster, handed the ball, headed into the line and Grant knocked it loose. Safety Todd Bowles fell on the squirting ball at the Chicago 25, and after three plays positioned it at the 18, Lohmiller got another chance. He kicked the 35-yarder with 2:14 remaining.

The Redskins overcame five interceptions off Mark Rypien and did it mostly with a defensive effort that was near-perfect at all the right times and included interceptions by A.J. Johnson and Brad Edwards on Chicago's last two possessions.

It was a victory that did many things for the Redskins (8-5). Philadelphia's loss at Miami last night has given them the best record among NFC wild-card contenders and a chance to open the playoffs at RFK, where they're 6-1 this season.

They were 8-8 at home the last two years and listed defending their home turf as their top priority for this season. They're also very close to wrapping up a playoff spot. Losses by Green Bay (6-7) and Minnesota (6-7) dropped all the other NFC contenders at least two games behind the Redskins and one behind the inconsistent Eagles.

But it was much more than that for a team that wanted to prove it again deserved to be playing important games in December.

"Really, we hadn't won a game that meant anything in two years," said assistant head coach Richie Petitbon, who directs the Redskins' defense. "That's not something you like to say about yourself."

It looked a lot worse than that after a loss in Dallas on Thanksgiving Day. "We're still living with that game," Bowles said.

Since then, they've beaten the Dolphins (10-3) and Bears (10-3), won back-to-back games for the first time in 2 1/2 months and beaten winning teams for the first time since the 1987 playoffs.

It didn't come without a price. Their offensive line, which has played so well the past two games, suffered a huge loss when tackle Ed Simmons suffered torn ligaments in his right knee as he protected on Lohmiller's winning kick. It's likely he'll undergo surgery today and be lost for the season.

"That was a brutally hard-fought game out there," Redskins Coach Joe Gibbs said. "We made a lot of mistakes, and our defense and special teams bailed us out. I'm really proud of them and I told them so after the game. This is two big ones in a row and this team has shown it can bounce back from adversity."

"It's a tough game to lose," Bears Coach Mike Ditka said. "We didn't play very well the second half on offense {113 yards}. The defense hung in there and did everything they could. When you get that many turnovers, you should win."

What the Redskins got offensively came mostly from Earnest Byner, who picked up 121 yards on 28 carries and went over the 100-yard mark for the third time in four games. Rypien completed only 12 passes, but six were to Gary Clark, who continued a Pro Bowl season with 85 yards and an eight-yard touchdown catch.

Meanwhile, the Redskins decided the best defensive strategy was to throw up an eight-man front to stop running back Neal Anderson (57 yards on 11 carries) and see if quarterback Jim Harbaugh could beat them.

He couldn't, completing 17 of 33 for only 187 yards. He drove the Bears for field goals on three of their first five possessions for a 9-0 lead at the half.

Rypien, who entered the game with two interceptions in 205 throws, threw five in the Redskins' first eight possessions. He twice underthrew Clark down the middle. He threw behind Clark another time and threw one low that bounced off Ricky Sanders's hands. The Bears converted all three of the first-half interceptions into Kevin Butler field goals.

The Redskins had 151 yards in the first half, and Byner and Clark accounted for 136 of them.

Rookie safety Mark Carrier intercepted three of his passes, and Rypien said he went to the sideline "bitter and upset a few times. You don't expect to win when you turn the ball over like that. I'm not pleased. The thing about these games is you still have to go out and keep getting after it."

He hit four passes in a row only once all day and those turned out to be the four most important ones he'd throw. They came at the start of the second half as the Redskins took the kickoff and put together a 72-yard, 7 1/2-minute drive that ended with the eight-yard pass to Clark.

Byner carried seven times for 39 yards, but suffered a bruised shoulder and went to the dressing room to have a pad added. The big play of the drive came on third and 15 at the Chicago 32 when Monk scooped in a low 16-yard throw from Rypien. Byner ran for five and three, and on third and two at the 8, Clark caught a turn-in at the 4 and weaved into the end zone.

He celebrated by spiking the ball, then sprinting to the other end zone and exhorting the crowd.

"I was just as happy as all get-out," Clark said. "This was one of those games we had to win at any cost, and we'll take it. I don't care if it's 10-9 or 3-2. We had some turnovers, but the Bears made some great athletic plays."

That got the Redskins within 9-7 with 7:23 left in the third quarter. The Bears had opened the scoring with field goals of 29, 23 and 46 yards by Butler, but as the fourth quarter opened, his second 46-yard try hit the left upright.

That turned out to be a big play, although it didn't appear to be when the Redskins drove to the Bears 36. Rypien missed on second and third down, and Gibbs said he weighed whether to try to drop a punt inside the 10 or go for a field goal.

"I went over and told him I thought it was makable," Lohmiller said. "I definitely wanted to try it."

The 54-yard attempt fell just short, but on the next play the Bears, who hadn't had a turnover all day, suffered one. Grant knocked the ball from Muster at the 36 and a scramble began. Linebacker Greg Manusky fell on it, but it slipped away, and finally, Bowles recovered at the Chicago 25.

"That sucker just wouldn't quit rolling," Manusky said. "We were due for one, but I was wondering if we were ever going to get it."

Bowles: "There were eight or ten guys in front of me when it first popped out. We're chasing and chasing, and all of a sudden, it's right there in front of me."

Rypien handed the ball to Byner three times and he got the ball to the 18. On fourth down, Lohmiller's 35-yard field goal made it 10-9.

At that point, Gibbs faced a semi-tough decision. Chicago's Markus Paul was called for an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty on the field goal. He'd climbed on the back of a teammate in an effort to block the kick and that would have meant a first down and half the distance to the goal line (the 9). It would also have meant taking points off the board.

"It was a tough decision," Gibbs said, "but with the way our defense had been playing, I decided to let them do it again."

It worked. Johnson stepped in front of Wendell Davis at the Chicago 32 for one critical interception. The Redskins ran three plays and punted and the Bears had a final chance with 39 seconds left.

Harbaugh hit Davis for 20 and Anderson for 19 to get the ball to the Washington 46 with 25 seconds left. He threw two incompletions, was sacked by Charles Mann with 11 seconds left and had his final throw picked off by Brad Edwards.

But down the stretch, the Redskins couldn't count their big defensive plays on one hand. Wilber Marshall nailed Dennis Gentry for a three-yard loss to end the third quarter, thus forcing Butler to try a long field goal. Grant knocked the ball from Muster and Bowles recovered. There was Johnson with his first interception. And safety Alvin Walton and cornerback Martin Mayhew had a half-dozen terrific tackles.

"That's kind of the way you expect a game like this to go," Bowles said. "It's one of those games you think is going down to the last play, and we're fortunate to have made it."