INDIANAPOLIS, DEC. 21 -- The Washington Redskins received a slice of good news this morning when rookie running back Brian Mitchell awoke to find that the swelling and soreness in his left ankle had decreased dramatically.

Mitchell probably won't play when the Redskins face the Indianapolis Colts at 8 p.m. Saturday in the Hoosier Dome. But his rapid recovery means the Redskins aren't forced to activate Gerald Riggs off injured reserve.

"I didn't want to make a move because that would mean cutting a player," Coach Joe Gibbs said. "Brian may play. It depends on how he feels in warm-ups. The trainers think he can play, but we'll probably hold him out as long as we can."

Mitchell re-injured the already sore ankle during Thursday's practice and was limping so badly it appeared there would be no way he could play.

His absence would have forced the Redskins to activate Riggs even though he'd been back at practice only a week after a six-week layoff. It also would have forced Gibbs to use one of his two remaining free roster moves, which he hopes to save until absolutely necessary.

"It feels a lot better," Mitchell said. "I think I could go on it. The plan is to rest me, but if anything happens with Earnest {Byner}, I'll be available."

Mitchell's injury means that Byner may get every carry as he tries to become the first Redskin in eight years to have four straight 100-yard rushing games. Getting all the work won't be anything new; since Riggs was injured, Byner has carried on 139 of 157 running plays.

With two games remaining, he already has had the best rushing total of his career (1,031 yards) and the ninth best in Redskins history.

But he's a secondary story line for the Redskins (9-5), who have won three in a row, clinched a spot in the playoffs and now are playing for the right to host an NFC first-round game at RFK Stadium on either Jan. 5 or 6.

They're almost certain to play the Philadelphia Eagles (8-6), and they begin the final two weeks with a one-game lead. The Redskins finish with the Colts and the Buffalo Bills (at RFK next week); the Eagles host the Dallas Cowboys on Sunday, then go to Phoenix.

If the Eagles win their last two, the Redskins need to win theirs because if the teams finish tied, the Eagles hold the tiebreaker advantage and therefore would get the first-round game at Veterans Stadium.

Teams traditionally haven't been able to get motivated when they're playing for home-field advantage, and Gibbs has spent a huge part of this week reminding his players of the advantage they have at RFK (they're 6-1 at home and 3-4 on the road).

"I'm hoping we're going to hit our stride here, and that we've learned our lessons and will play excited from here on out," Gibbs said. "I think we know how important it is to get that first-round game at our place. If you don't, it means you have to go on the road three straight weeks to get to the Super Bowl, and that's tough to do."

His other priority is getting quarterback Mark Rypien straightened out. With their defense and running game going so well, the Redskins believe they're as good as almost anyone if Rypien is playing well.

He threw eight touchdown passes and two interceptions in his first three games after returning from a knee injury in Week 3. But two weeks ago in a 10-9 victory over Chicago, he threw a career-high five interceptions. Last week the Redskins passed only 11 times on a rainy day at New England.

Rypien doesn't duck the importance of his performances, saying: "I want to get it going the next couple of weeks. After the Chicago game, I wanted to get back out there and throw 25, 30 passes the next week, but the conditions limited us. This week, playing indoors, we can mix things up and get some balance. I'm looking forward to it.

"When everything is going like {it has} been, the quarterback can't help but feel confident with what he's doing. I'm one part of the puzzle that has to get my act together."

It's a different kind of game for the Colts (6-8), all but out of the postseason picture. "It's slim and none," Colts Coach Ron Meyer said, "and slim left town."

Still, they've won four of their last six and have a couple of offensive weapons that may scare the Redskins. They're last in the NFL in offense, but that may be because they played the first five games without unhappy running back Eric Dickerson.

Dickerson returned Oct. 21 against the Denver Broncos, but averaged only 37 yards a game his first five weeks. Since then he has rushed for more than 100 yards twice and has started to resemble one of the top running backs in history.

"He's still trying to get in a groove and become productive again," Meyer said. "He's working at it, but when you sit out three months, it's tough."

The other part of their formula has been rookie quarterback Jeff George, the No. 1 pick in last spring's draft. He has at times looked brilliant, very much like the $11 million man he is. At other times, he has struggled, especially two weeks ago in throwing three interceptions in a loss to the Bills.

But the Colts love him and believe he'll be the foundation of their offense for years. They're running a two-back hybrid of the run-and-shoot and probably will go to a full-fledged run-and-shoot as George becomes more comfortable.

"It's hard to say how good he's going to be, but I really, really like him," Meyer said. "You see a performance against Buffalo two weeks ago, and you see one that's not up to standard. But Buffalo can do that to a lot of people. You see his performance against the Jets {two weeks ago} and you see some real exciting things. We just hope he can continue to grow and excel. We also need to surround him with better and better people. I think we're on the right track."

Said George: "The main thing has been the mental part of it. There's so much to learn, and being a rookie, teams have thrown a lot of things at me. I think I've adjusted well. I picked up the offense pretty quickly because it was similar to what I ran in college. Now, I'm spending my time learning the defensive side of the ball."

Since a 2-6 start, Meyer has been forced to answer questions about his job security every 15 minutes or so. But he was assured by Colts owner Robert Irsay today that he'll return to finish the final year of his contract, although some changes in the rest of the coaching staff are expected.

"That kind of speculation is going to happen in this business," Meyer said. "It always goes on more in the press than on the internal side of things. I think what we'd like to have is a good finish and have some things to build on for next season.

"Personal pride comes into play and we have as much of that as anyone. We think the Redskins are very good and we're going to be a decisive underdog. We've got to play letter-perfect and hope they foul it up in several ways. We'd have a chance to snatch victory. Those things do occur in the NFL."