FOXBORO, MASS., DEC. 15 -- The Washington Redskins had been pushed all over Texas Stadium by the Dallas Cowboys that day at Texas Stadium. They'd looked tired and old and had been outhustled by a younger opponent that seemed more interested in playing.

They flew home from Dallas on Thanksgiving Day with that 27-17 loss in their pocket and a long weekend to think about their season. One of the inescapable conclusions was that they'd had a long, wonderful run since Coach Joe Gibbs arrived in 1981. They'd gone to three Super Bowls, won two and made five trips to the playoffs.

But they were no longer a young team and anyone who'd watched them play had to wonder if the time for the hated "R" word -- rebuilding -- had come.

Gibbs emphasized that it was too early to count his team out, but he also emphasized he'd misjudged the talent of his players. He said the last five weeks would be interesting even to him.

"Our guys will either do it or they won't," he said flatly.

What has happened since Thanksgiving? For one thing, preparation. The Redskins have had long, physical practices, and they've traditionally played their best doing that.

For another thing, a bit of team spirit. Wide receiver Art Monk asked Gibbs if he could call a players-only meeting the night before a 42-20 victory over Miami and that was followed by one before the Chicago game and another before today's game.

Whatever the reason, the result have been stunning. At a time when good teams stand up and play their best, the Redskins have stood up. Their defense has allowed two touchdowns in three weeks and they've averaged 177 yards a game on the ground.

Far from resembling the team that got pushed around by the Philadelphia Eagles a few weeks ago, the Redskins look big and strong and as good as any team in the NFC. Such turnarounds often are hard to understand and that's no different for the Redskins.

"If we got behind {earlier in the season}, we weren't quite sure if we could win or not," wide receiver Gary Clark said. "Now, no matter what the score is we feel we can win the game, which is how it should be."

Asked to describe what had happened since Thanksgiving, Clark said: "It's more attitude than anything else. We knew we had too much talent to be losing to teams we were losing to. In 1986 and 1987, there wasn't as much talent, but the heart was there. Heart and attitude. We're seeing that now with this team. Last year, we got ourselves together too late."

Other Redskins said about the same thing. Asked if the loss to the Cowboys was a wakeup call, center Jeff Bostic said: "Our players just woke up. Well, maybe Dallas an awakening. The meeting before the Dolphins game, it obviously worked."

The Redskins have always played their best ball under Gibbs late in the season and no one seems to know why. One reason could be strength. He was the first NFL coach to give up practice time during training camp to allow his players to lift weights and, unlike many other teams, they continue weightlifting through the season.

It certainly makes them stronger for the final weeks, but it also gives them a psychological advantage.

Safety Todd Bowles: "The Dallas loss was definitely a wakeup call. We lost a game we shouldn't have lost. They caught us sleeping and after that we were either going to be another .500 team or a playoff team."