One of the oddities of this season for the Washington Redskins is how it began -- with Coach Joe Gibbs planning to ride the Posse as he had at the end of the 1989 season. It began with game plans built around a big-time air game and a quarterback seemingly on the verge of stardom.

The Redskins never could have guessed it would end with them running the ball better than at any time in the post-Riggo era, winning playoff spurs by lining up and knocking others on their backsides.

The game plans have become more conservative, more basic, and more effective. When the Redskins flew home from Dallas after that Thanksgiving Day loss to the Cowboys, they had thrown the ball 57 percent of the time and were a lukewarm 6-5.

Since then, they've run the ball 62 percent of the time and won four of five, including victories over three playoff teams -- Miami, Chicago and Buffalo.

The 2,083 rushing yards are their most since 1987 (when they had 19 more), but down the stretch they've averaged 176 rushing yards a game, the highest average for any period since John Riggins retired after the 1985 season.

It's this success on the ground, along with a defense that has been better than expected, that has gotten them back into the playoffs and made them so optimistic about their chances Saturday afternoon at Veterans Stadium against the Philadelphia in the NFC wild-card game.

This wasn't the original plan. The Posse -- wide receivers Art Monk, Gary Clark and Ricky Sanders -- had carried the Redskins late last season, and Gibbs predicted they'd play together about 60 percent of the time in 1990.

But Mark Rypien got hurt in Week 3, the other quarterbacks had problems and Philadelphia and Dallas administered pretty thorough physical whippings. Sometime after the Dallas game, Gibbs decided to get back to what he calls "Redskin football."

"We decided we could run the ball no matter what the other team was doing," guard Russ Grimm said. "We hadn't run it too well in some of those early games, but maybe we hadn't given it a chance either."

Clark is going to the Pro Bowl after a tremendous season -- 75 catches for 1,112 yards and eight touchdowns -- having proven not only his consistent excellence but his toughness game in and game out.

All the Redskins have stories about him, about him stalking the sideline cursing himself and anyone in sight after a botched play. They also have postgame stories, having seen him in states that resemble exhaustion.

"I try to leave it all on the field," he said.

Clark caught only four more passes last season, but for the rest of the Posse, it has been a different kind of year.

Monk's 68 catches are his fewest in a nonstrike season since 1983, and Sanders went from 80 catches last season to 54.

"It's been different for us this year," Clark said. "The running game came back for us this year. Earnest Byner has done a great job and Gerald Riggs is ready now. We're more of a complement to the running game, where last year it was the other way around. I think it's a good mixture. We needed the running game back and now we're back in the playoffs with it."

Gibbs has been asked about the passing game more than once this season because it's believed that the Eagles will stack the line of scrimmage to stop the run and go blitz crazy against Rypien.

It's also no secret that the Eagles have problems in the secondary. Their defense was the best in the NFL at stopping the run, but was only 13th at stopping the pass. Rookie cornerback Ben Smith has worn a bull's-eye on his back all season and will be assigned to either Monk or Clark.

"There'll be some chances," Rypien said, "but they put heat on you. They do that very well and gamble they can keep you from getting it downfield."

Whatever Gibbs is planning, he's keeping it to himself. He talks vaguely, saying: "I'd rather it be 50-50 on the run/pass ratio. Your big chunks of yardage normally come in the passing game, but the consistency part of it and the physical aspect come with the run. The Eagles are very hard to run against, and you're not going to have a day when you just run all over them. They're number one in the league against the rush, and you have to try to keep them off balance."

The Redskins didn't do that at Dallas when they called 54 pass plays and 15 runs. The rushes got them 36 yards, and while Gibbs was less than happy with the play at the line of scrimmage, his linemen were less than happy at having only 15 running plays called.

That changed 10 days later against the Dolphins, and since then the Redskins have called more runs than passes every game. It began against the Dolphins, when Byner rushed for 157 yards and Gibbs called a whopping 47 running plays and 28 passes.

"It wasn't really a change," Clark said. "Basically, we've always been a run-first offense. We just had so many injuries last year we had to throw the ball. Last year was kind of a treat for us being the main focus. As long as we're moving the ball, we don't care."

But fewer passes has been an adjustment.

"You get into a groove when you're seeing a lot of balls," he said. "You get to the point where you can catch anything. You come up with catches you normally shouldn't even be making. We'll take the win over the catches every time."

Clark says that's Redskins football the way it always has been.

"We've never been real pretty in the way we did things," he said. "Every time we've been in the playoffs we've had some tough games and ugly games. People called us the 'Ugly Ducklings' there at one point. That's what we've evolved into again."

Likewise, he defends Rypien, saying that if it's the pass that's needed to get the offense jump-started in Philadelphia, it will be there.

"I wouldn't want another quarterback," he said. "A lot of people are putting pressure on him, but he's been winning games and that's all you can ask. Everyone expects him to play the way he did against New Orleans {four touchdown passes} and that's not going to happen every time. It's hard to play at that level every week. Rip is still young, and when he gets a little older, he may be like a Joe Montana or a Randall Cunningham or some of the better quarterbacks in the league. But I think he's playing great."

And: "Right now, with the way the running game has come around, these may be the two most physical teams in the league, and it'll boil down to who has the fewest turnovers."