FOXBORO, MASS., DEC. 15 -- Their finest moment in almost three years came this afternoon in a cold, relentless rain and in front of the NFL's smallest turnout of the season. It ended, not with a Gatorade shower, but a dead sprint to the warmth of the visiting locker room and a flight home.

The Washington Redskins had taken a lot of unpredictable turns in a season that only a month ago looked to be going nowhere, and took another today in a 25-10 dismantling of the tattered New England Patriots before 22,286 at Foxboro Stadium.

Running back Earnest Byner gained 149 yards on a workhorse 39 carries to become a 1,000-yard rusher, linebacker Kurt Gouveia scored his first career touchdown and the Redskins led 9-0 after three minutes and 19-0 at the half.

That was the quick cushion they needed and had discussed in a players-only meeting Friday night. "We didn't want to give them any encouragement," Gouveia said. "We wanted to come out and say, 'This is how it's going to be.' They're so hungry for a win, you don't want to give them a chance to taste one."

It was cold and miserable and pretty much everything they feared it would be. But it was also everything the Redskins dreamed because it pushed their record to 9-5 and clinched them one of the NFC's three wild-card spots. The other two are still being contested.

Having missed the playoffs in 1988 and 1989, getting back to the postseason had been their goal since the first day of training camp.

"It seems like forever since we've been in the playoffs," Coach Joe Gibbs said. "We're happy, really happy. It was really tough to play out there today but our guys got the job done. We're thrilled to be in the playoffs."

Since losing in Dallas on Thanksgiving Day to fall to 6-5, the Redskins have won three in a row and now, even if the Philadelphia Eagles (7-6) don't lose again, the Redskins can clinch a first-round home game with victories over Indianapolis and Buffalo the next two weeks.

They also continued a remarkable run, having gone 28-7 in December since Gibbs arrived in 1981. No NFC team is playing any better at the moment, and the Redskins slowly are starting to wonder if this season that started so slowly may yet be special.

"It's starting to feel like kind of a typical Redskin season," linebacker Monte Coleman said. "I never really thought we were dead. We've got a lot of veteran guys who've been through the wars before, and it's just a matter of putting our minds to it."

Gibbs had warned the Redskins all week that the weather could be terrible -- and it was -- and that the Patriots (1-13) could be excited about playing on national television.

But New England started very much like a team on its way to a club-record 12th straight loss. The stadium was virtually empty until about a half-hour before kickoff, and there never appeared to be more than about 20,000 spectators. Even the announced number was an all-time Foxboro low for the Patriots, and many of those who bothered to come began leaving during a miserable first half.

The Redskins were worried that on a bad-weather day some breaks would go against them, and the Patriots would suddenly have a reason to get interested. But all the early bounces went to Washington.

Gouveia picked off a flying fumble and ran 39 yards for a score 82 seconds into the game. That made it 7-0, and 91 seconds later it went to 9-0 on a safety when center Chris Gannon snapped the ball high over the head of punter Brian Hansen and out of the end zone.

Gibbs then turned over the game to Byner and to a defense that has allowed two touchdowns the last three weeks.

Byner wasn't flashy, but he was everything the Redskins needed, finishing with his fourth 100-yard game in five weeks. That he fumbled only once was an accomplishment in itself considering the conditions.

Quarterback Mark Rypien threw only 11 passes and completed five for 100 yards. He threw one interception and found Ricky Sanders three times for 75 yards. Art Monk caught the other two and Gary Clark was shut out for the first time this season.

The rest belonged to the defense. The Redskins allowed the Patriots 246 yards and only one touchdown. They forced four fumbles, intercepted a pass and sacked rookie Tommy Hodson five times.

Byner becomes only the fifth Redskin to rush for 1,000 yards in a season; the first in four years. He rushed for 1,002 yards for the 1985 Cleveland Browns. In 1990, with two games left, he has 1,031.

"I had no idea I'd carried the ball that many times," he said. "I don't think I've ever got it that much, not in sandlot, high school, anywhere. I'll tell you, it's just a great, great feeling to get back in the playoffs. It was pretty terrible out there, but the footing on the field wasn't bad at all. There wasn't a lot of slipping and sliding like you'd expect, and that was surprising."

Before he got a chance, the Patriots had dug themselves a 7-0 hole when Hodson and fullback John Stephens missed connections on a handoff. Stephens tried to juggle the ball into control, but with defensive tackle Darryl Grant about to belt him, it popped into Gouveia's hands, and he slipped from the grasp of running back Marvin Allen and sprinted 39 yards into the end zone.

The Redskins hadn't returned a fumble for a touchdown since Darrell Green did it against the Eagles on Nov. 8, 1987.

"I just looked up and it was there," Gouveia said. "I don't know if I broke a tackle or what. I was just looking for the end zone."

Hodson: "It was my fault. I just didn't get it to him and you can't give someone a touchdown on a day like this."

That was followed by the bad-snap safety and, Gibbs said, "We didn't want to do anything stupid after that."

He put the ball into Byner's hands for 14 of the first 17 offensive snaps and didn't vary much the entire day. The Redskins had nine points before their offense got the ball and on their second and third possessions ate up almost 13 1/2 minutes driving for a touchdown and a field goal.

That first drive was a 12-play, 70-yard beauty that ended with Byner's five-yard touchdown run. Actually, it ended on about the 2-yard line until massive lineman Joe Jacoby bowled two Patriots and Byner into the end zone.

"I think Jake ought to get about three of those six points," Byner said. "He hit me about as hard as anyone did today. Whew."

Byner carried it on 10 of the 12 plays. On the other two, Rypien hit Monk for 17 on third and seven and Sanders for 17 on third and seven.

The Patriots ran three plays and punted, and the Redskins drove 59 yards for the first of three Chip Lohmiller field goals, a 19-yarder, to make it 19-0.

The Redskins tried only one fancy play all day, and it backfired. That came after they opened the second half by driving from their 20 to the New England 30. On first down there, Gibbs called a flea-flicker. Byner flipped it back to Rypien, who underthrew Monk in the end zone. Safety Fred Marion intercepted.

"That's the second week in a row the trick play has backfired," Rypien said. "Maybe next week if it comes in, I'll audible to something else. But this is the way we wanted to play. This is how you have to do it on a day like this, and the guys really stood up."

The Patriots made one run, closing to 19-10 at the beginning of the fourth quarter on a four-yard run by Stephens and a 42-yard field goal by Jason Staurovsky.

But the Redskins drove for another field goal and Charles Mann knocked the ball from Hodson to set up a third one with 2:30 remaining.

"Some bad things happened to us early," Patriots Coach Rod Rust said. "That's a good football team over there and their offense did a fine job of doing what they wanted to do. Byner broke some tackles and some bad things happened early that made it hard for us to overcome."