FOXBORO, MASS. -- It was 9-0 before the Redskins' offense touched the ball. On the third play of the game, a failed handoff led to linebacker Kurt Gouveia rumbling for a touchdown. On New England's first punt attempt, the snap came closer to going through the goalposts than the punter's hands, resulting in a safety. On the next series, the Patriots called a running play on third and six. On fourth down, a Patriot ran over return man Joe Howard who had called for a fair catch.

This all happened in the first 10 minutes. No fooling. By halftime, the Patriots had been penalized 10 times. There was a race to the parking lot and Redskins nerves had been calmed. Nerves? Playing against the Patriots?

Having qualified for the playoffs for the first time in three years, Coach Joe Gibbs's sigh of relief felt like a gust of wind in the visiting locker room. Playing a forlorn, pathetic, directionless, 1-12 team will do that to you. Lose to these guys, the St. Leo of the NFL, and you may as well point the charter straight toward Siberia. You wouldn't want to face the Squire {owner Jack Kent Cooke} after losing to the Pats(ies).

"It seems like forever," Gibbs said of his team's absence from the playoffs. "There was a lot of pressure on us to win. It's a different kind of pressure. I was more nervous before this one than I was the last two weeks {before games against the division-leading Bears and Dolphins}. It's a game that was hard to coach. I was kind of nervous all week."

He wasn't alone. Said Darryl Grant: "You know where the Bears and Dolphins are coming from. The Patriots have all these problems, one of their coaches resigned. . . . They're dangerous. There was a certain nervousness involved."

Defensive lineman Eric Williams, the ex-Detroit Lion, added: "I know exactly what {the Patriots} are going through. A team like that, you've got to score as many as you can in the first quarter, then their whole season starts showing. If you let 'em hang around, it's like showing a little dog a piece of meat, they'll just grab onto it."

It might not have been the blowout many expected, but you don't ask "How pretty?" in December. Since Joe Gibbs arrived, the Redskins have compiled a 37-9 record in December and the playoffs. With the Colts up next and Buffalo's Jim Kelly out until the playoffs, the Redskins could run the table. This is the sixth trip to the playoffs under Gibbs; the previous five produced three Super Bowl teams.

If you're a Redskins fan, this is what you wanted to see against the Patriots: plenty of Earnest Byner to keep the clock running (check); a pass to Art Monk to keep his streak alive (check); starters on the bench early and nobody hurt (check).

Oh sure, Gibbs said that if the Redskins could lose last year to the previously winless Cowboys, they had to take the Patriots seriously. What else could he say, "Take us, giving the 13?"

The Patriots, however, had no chance of beating the Redskins. Last year's Cowboys were often competitive; this team of Patsies is an embarrassment to the NFL.

The defensive coordinator quit, the general manager is waging a public war for his job with the owner. So few fans show up for games (22,286 today) owner Victor Kiam is advertising in New York papers to lure Giants fans who can't get tickets to their games. The game here in two weeks against the Giants, as a result, is a sellout. The Lisa Olson controversy still hangs over the team like a storm cloud. Reportedly, Kiam is flirting with moving to Sacramento. The Patriots are getting exactly what they deserve.

While the Patriots lie in a coma, the Redskins return home, giddy over their playoff berth. Expanded postseason or not, getting to the playoffs in the NFL is still a big deal. "We've been out too long, it's time to go back," Grant said.

"It's hard for any team to beat us once we get in," wide receiver Gary Clark added. "It's been that way since I got here. We're going to celebrate this, trust me."

New to all this euphoria is Williams. He's never played in a postseason game and when things weren't going so well in midseason, he was concerned that streak might continue. "If we couldn't make it this year," he said, "I'd be the jinx. I'm glad to see that I'm not."

Things have changed dramatically in three weeks, even if the Redskins were a little lucky last week against the Bears and didn't exactly blow out the Patriots. If the Redskins had beaten the Giants once, there would be a first-place tie in the NFC East. The Redskins would be playing for a division title instead of home field in the wild-card game.

Even so, Washington may be in better shape than the Giants. Both may be playing the first weekend in January, and the Redskins have more momentum. After looking mediocre through the first 11 weeks, the Redskins have found their stride when it counts.

The best kick belongs to Byner, who now has four 100-yard rushing games in five weeks. To win in the playoffs, in Chicago or in New York in January, you'd better be able to run the ball. The Redskins now are running it as well as anybody. Just as important, Byner has emerged as a key member of the club. "He makes for a good leader," Gibbs said. "He's an extremely tough, physical, smart guy. He'll play hurt. Bad weather or anything else, he'll tee it up. If you're going to go far in the playoffs, you need a leader at running back."

After being in their own sleep-like state four weeks ago, the Redskins are now wide-eyed alert in the cold December air. "As an outsider," Williams said, "I'd always heard how the Redskins come to play in December. Now, even though I'm playing here I sit back and watch. The leaders are stepping up, the attitude has changed." This time the party won't begin without them.