FOXBORO, MASS., DEC. 14 -- There will be a lot of mini-games inside the bigger one for the Washington Redskins at 4 p.m. Saturday at Foxboro Stadium. That bigger game is the Redskins (8-5) vs. the New England Patriots (1-12), and in some ways, it's important enough on its own terms.
The Redskins, coming off victories over Miami and Chicago, can clinch a playoff spot with a victory over the Pity Pats. Beyond that is the matter of home-field advantage. They lead the Philadelphia Eagles (7-6) by a game and would host a wild-card game -- no matter what the Eagles do -- by winning their final three games.
But after beating the Dolphins and Bears, both playoff-bound, in emotional games at RFK Stadium, the Redskins find themselves in an entirely different set of circumstances -- playing an awful team in a half-full stadium with no idea how interested the Patriots are in playing.
New England enters with a team-record 11-game losing streak and has been outscored 109-24 in its last four. The Patriots are ranked next to last in the NFL in both offense and defense and have lost 14 straight against NFC East opponents.
And then again. . . .
"They may be looking at this as their playoff game," Redskins defensive tackle Darryl Grant said. "They know this game is on national television and that a lot of people will be watching. We'd better be ready. We know what's at stake, and I can't see us not being in the right frame of mind. There have been a couple of instances this year when we weren't as mentally ready as we might have been. I think we learned our lesson."
That's why Coach Joe Gibbs, his staff and many of his veteran players have preached the dangers of not being emotionally and physically prepared this week. They've reminded one another that their 1989 season went down the drain because of a loss to a winless Dallas team, and 1990 was in jeopardy on Thanksgiving Day after yet another loss to the Cowboys.
"We've got two years of work riding on one game," Gibbs said of his team's goal to reach the playoffs for the first time since Super Bowl XXII. "It has taken us two years to get to this point, and that's the way I hope we look at it."
That may be easier to do since so many Redskins have so many large and small goals they hope to accomplish. That list begins with running back Earnest Byner, who is 118 yards from the second 1,000-yard season of his seven-year career and 121 from his best season ever.
Since Gerald Riggs got hurt in Philadelphia a month ago, Byner has averaged 108 yards a game and given the Redskins their most balanced offense since that Super Bowl season of 1987.
It's also an important game for quarterback Mark Rypien, who threw five interceptions in last week's 10-9 victory over the Bears. The Redskins know their playoff chances are just about zero unless Rypien gets hot, and they are hoping the hot streak begins now.
"Last week is over with and it's time to move on," Rypien said. "I'd like to go out and make some plays and get that one against the Bears behind me. That's only natural, but at the same time, you can't force anything."
Asked if he is concerned about becoming gun shy, he said: "That's never been the case before. It wasn't the case last week. I've always been the type that'll take his shots."
There will be changes on the offensive line for the sixth straight week. With right tackle Ed Simmons out for the season with a knee injury, Joe Jacoby has moved from left guard to right tackle; right guard Raleigh McKenzie has moved to left guard; and Mark Schlereth has moved back in at right guard, where he started the first four games.
"You'd be worried if these guys were new," line coach Jim Hanifan said, "but one of the advantages we have with these guys is that they've all moved around and they're all smart enough to make the adjustments."
Finally, there's the defense. What was supposed to be their Achilles' heel three months ago has turned into a strength. Assistant head coach/defense Richie Petitbon and his staff rotate about 18 players depending on the situation, and the result has been a higher level of play than the Redskins could have imagined.
They allowed the Bears and Dolphins one touchdown combined, and another national television appearance is one more chance for cornerback Darrell Green and linebacker Wilber Marshall to show their peers they belong back in the Pro Bowl.
What the Redskins will be getting from the other sideline is anyone's guess. Few teams have ever had the kind of season the Patriots are enduring, beginning with a locker room incident involving three players and reporter Lisa Olson. Then, a couple of players were involved in a fight outside a bar. Then this week, defensive coordinator Charlie Sumner abruptly cleaned out his desk and resigned.
What's more, no one in their front office knows what his status is for next year. Owner Victor Kiam has talked to University of Miami Athletic Director Sam Jankovich about taking over the operation, which leaves General Manager Patrick Sullivan, Coach Rod Rust and their staffs in limbo.
Gibbs has tried to sell the Redskins on the idea that the Patriots have good players who simply haven't played well. He has told them that wide receiver Irving Fryar (45 catches) is a game-breaker, that rookie quarterback Tommy Hodson has made some good plays and that linebacker Andre Tippett and safety Fred Marion can play for anyone.
"I think our guys are smart enough to look at the films and see they have some darn good football players," Gibbs said. "They've played well at times and they haven't played well at times. They're certainly capable of playing well. We don't know what their mind-set is. They may be thinking this is their chance to take a stand, to save some jobs. We can't take care of any of that. What we can take care of is making sure we play our absolute best."