The Washington Redskins returned to work yesterday, with a Saturday afternoon game at New England only five days away and without starting tackle Ed Simmons. Having beaten the Miami Dolphins and Chicago Bears in tough, emotional games the last two weekends, the Redskins have many reasons not to get very excited about playing the 1-12 Patriots.

But they've also waited 2 1/2 years and played 45 times to be able to say this about themselves:

They need only one more victory to clinch a playoff spot.

That would have seemed the unlikeliest of possibilities 2 1/2 weeks ago when they flew home with a crushing loss to Dallas in their minds. They had the Dolphins and Bears coming up, they were a team in disarray, and for one of the few times in the Joe Gibbs era seemed to doubt how good they might actually be.

"These last two wins have been among the two greatest ever," Gibbs said.

He said this season was about getting back to the playoffs, "And we're going to get it. For two years, we've been working on it."

Teams mark time by all sorts of seemingly odd moments -- squad meetings, big plays, big mistakes and the like. The Redskins this season are marking it by the Dallas loss, and everything they've done since has been measured against what they didn't do Thanksgiving Day.

"That's a game we're not going to forget for a long time," safety Todd Bowles said.

As expected, the Redskins learned that offensive tackle Simmons likely is lost for the season after suffering torn ligaments Sunday in his right knee. Simmons will undergo an arthroscopic exam Wednesday and if repair work is needed it will be done then.

Yesterday, as they again shuffled their offensive line and took a closer look at Mark Rypien's five interceptions, the Redskins were able to enjoy not only Sunday's 10-9 victory over the Bears but a day that put them in the best of shape.

At 8-5, they have the best record among NFC wild-card contenders, which they'll need to host a first-round game. They're a game better than the Philadelphia Eagles (7-6) and two games better than Green Bay, Dallas, Minnesota and New Orleans.

The NFL's tiebreaker rules are complex and sometimes confusing, but after doing some figuring and talking to league officials and the Elias Sports Bureau, the Redskins were told they need only one victory to get into the playoffs because they hold tiebreaker advantages over other contenders.

They're at New England and Indianapolis the next two Saturdays, then end the regular season against the Buffalo Bills at RFK Stadium.

"Our focus now goes to one thing, and that's New England," Gibbs said. "We've worked two and a half years to get into a position to do this, and we're going to have to lay every single thing on the line. We have to approach this very smart because I know what everyone is going to say about this game, that this is a gimme game. There are no guarantees and New England has played well against some other teams.

"Anybody in this league can beat anyone else and we would be so stupid to go up there with anything less than the thought it'll be an all-out fight. Last year, we get beat by the Dallas Cowboys when they hadn't beaten anyone else in football. I think our players understand this. No matter what's said or printed, we haven't done anything until we win one more game."

Gibbs couldn't stop telling people how proud he was of his team and how it had risen from the ashes since Thanksgiving. They ground out 151 rushing yards against the Bears, who'd been allowing only 107 and were ranked No. 1 in stopping the run.

Coaches gave high marks to Joe Jacoby, Raleigh McKenzie, Earnest Byner and especially to tight end Ron Middleton for his work against Bears middle linebacker Mike Singletary. Cornerback Darrell Green and safety Alvin Walton got two of the highest scores on a defensive unit that has allowed just one touchdown the last two weeks.

Simmons's injury means another shifting of the offensive line: Jacoby moving from left guard to right tackle to replace Simmons; McKenzie from right guard to left guard to replace Jacoby; and Mark Schlereth back into the starting lineup at right guard.

The Redskins have gone almost two months since starting the same five offensive linemen in successive games, but those changes have at least come in the team's deepest area.

Meanwhile, Gibbs learned late Sunday night that Rypien had been so sick before the game he was barely able to stand up. He spent many of his pregame minutes vomiting, and after the game went into the training room and lay down.

He didn't tell Gibbs of his condition and asked that no one else tell him. He also refused to use it as a postgame alibi, but when coaches looked at the films yesterday, they saw that at least three of the interceptions were underthrown -- an indication he may not have been as strong as usual.

But he also threw the ball all over the place, and admitted that if a couple of the interceptions might not have been terrible throws, a couple of other bad throws weren't intercepted. The Redskins hadn't had a quarterback throw five interceptions since Jay Schroeder's six in Week 14 of the 1986 season, a 24-14 loss to the Giants.

"I felt terrible before the game," Rypien said, "but once I got out there, it actually wasn't that bad. I may have been weaker than normal. I don't know. I'll say this: It's one of those games where I can't take a lot of the credit for us winning. It's a win, and you throw it out and go on to next week."

Later he joked that getting the victory "makes all the difference in the world. From a personal standpoint, I'm disgusted with myself, but if we'd lost, people would be wanting to hang me from the nearest tree. Or if I were hanging from the nearest tree, there'd be plenty of people willing to kick the chair out from under me."

"You haven't achieved your goals as an NFL quarterback until you get into the playoffs," he said. "When you do get there, you're judged on a different level. This is a big week because it'll get us there and I hope I can do my part."