None of the Washington Redskins has had a season quite like that of cornerback Martin Mayhew. No other Redskin finds himself being tested so often and certainly no other Redskin has gained the same measure of respect among his coaches and teammates.

The Redskins have for 13 weeks watched virtually every opposing quarterback walk to the line of scrimmage looking for No. 35 -- Mayhew. With Darrell Green having an all-pro season on the other side, they've seen game plans geared around burning Mayhew.

He wore a bull's-eye on his back Sunday as Chicago's Wendell Davis caught seven passes during a 10-9 Washington victory. Miami's Tony Martin caught four the week before. Dallas's Kelvin Martin got seven on Thanksgiving Day.

Mayhew still smiles remembering the first-quarter interception that got the Redskins going toward a 42-20 victory over Miami.

"I have all the respect in the world for Dan Marino," he said, "and I knew what his game plan was. The first play of the game they throw at me. The first third down they throw at me. They go over the top on me, and then I come back and pick one off. That's the greatest feeling in the world. You know they're picking on you and it makes you want to get them."

This is no overnight success story. He started the final seven games last season because Green was injured and Brian Davis was benched. The plan this season was that Davis would move back into the starting lineup and that Mayhew would be a third or fourth cornerback and special teams player.

Instead, Davis got hurt and was eventually released, forcing Mayhew back into the lineup.

He hasn't won the job permanently. The Redskins still believe A. J. Johnson likely will move into the starting lineup next season when his surgically repaired knee is fully recovered, and a cornerback remains high on their draft wish list.

But what he has proven is that he belongs, perhaps not as a starter, but certainly as a third or fourth cornerback and special teams player. What he also has proven is that he's probably the surest tackler on his team and that he has enough brains and determination to make up for whatever coverage shortcomings he might have.

He has become one of the unheralded success stories on a team that may turn out to be better than almost anyone expected. A victory at New England on Saturday would clinch a playoff spot and Mayhew's a starter on a defense that has allowed one touchdown in its last two games.

"Martin Mayhew is tough," Coach Joe Gibbs said in what's just about his highest compliment, "and you win with tough guys in this league."

Secondary coach Emmitt Thomas adds: "People come at him because he's playing across from the best cornerback in the league. They have no alternative. They're going to complete some passes in front of him and beside him. But he's not going to give up the home run. As long as we can line up the next play, we can still stop them.

"He has proven he should be here. He's an excellent special teams player and the way people are going with four and five wide receivers at a time, you wouldn't feel anything about letting him get on the third or fourth receiver. But he's a starter right now and someone has to take it away from him."

When the Redskins lured him from Buffalo with a two-year, $456,000 offer 18 months ago, they were getting a former 10th-round draft choice who had spent his entire rookie season on injured reserve.

What they knew, they liked. He'd played opposite Deion Sanders at Florida State and that was very much like playing opposite Green. He survived that scrutiny, graduated with a 3.0 GPA in business and had begun preparing for law school when he went to training camp with the Bills.

They knew his speed and height (5 feet 8) might keep him from ever becoming a top-notch cornerback, but what they didn't know was that he also brought a toughness and drive to succeed that would overcome a lot of shortcomings.

"I have to study the game plans and study the rosters and go into games knowing what I might face in the game, what routes are run from what sets and things like that," Mayhew said. "I think everybody should do it. A lot of guys can get by without doing it. I know it's necessary for me."

But he's third in the NFC with six interceptions. He got the first two of his career in the opening day victory over Phoenix, and until getting shut out against the Bears, had one in four straight games.

That's one of the prices of having a dozen passes a game thrown at him.

"He's had to prove himself at every level," Thomas said, "and up here, they're going to keep testing him and keep testing him. He'd definitely be better in zone coverage because his strength is sitting back, reading a play and coming up and making tackles. But when you have to get up there and play with your hips to the quarterback, he has limitations. But with his mental toughness, you wouldn't want to just keep challenging him. He's smart and aggressive."

If Mayhew has proven himself to the Redskins this season, he has proven some things to himself as well. He came to training camp still wondering whether he had a place on the roster and knew that his law career might begin sooner instead of later.

"I think so," he said. "Going into minicamp I had some doubts. I played at the last part of the season, but when we came back I still wasn't first team. Brian {Davis} was ahead of me and that raised some doubts as to how much confidence they had in me. I thought if I could stay healthy and stay in the lineup things would work out."

He's quiet, and like a lot of other Redskins, pretty much hates interviews. He and Green share a common position, but not much else. Green is talkative and seems to love the locker room gab.

Green also may get five passes an entire game, while Mayhew may get five the first quarter.

"I just feel like I'm going to line up against a guy, and that he's going to make some plays and I'm going to make some plays," Mayhew said. "I go into it with the idea that if I go 100 percent every play, everything will turn out all right. That's the only way I know to approach it.

"I like it this way. If you don't get throws, you might get lulled to sleep and you might get beat in a big situation. I'm always ready for a throw. I don't have a chance to sleep."