Washington Redskins Coach Joe Gibbs never came out and jumped to the defense of his veteran players. Not after that battering in Philadelphia eight weeks ago, not after that dismal Thanksgiving Day loss in Dallas.

Gibbs said only that the season wasn't over and that a lot was yet to be decided. He said that everyone, including himself, would find out a lot about whether his Redskins were too old and tired and whether the time had indeed arrived for a housecleaning.

This was always the most sensitive of subjects. Gibbs has been loyal to his older players, has ridden to three Super Bowls with some of them and has said they're one of the reasons he has been so successful.

He and former Redskins general manager Bobby Beathard had this argument so many times that it was one of the biggest reasons Beathard resigned and is now running the San Diego Chargers.

Gibbs probably didn't know what the answer would be as the Redskins flew home from Dallas that night. But now, six weeks later, it's hard to second-guess his decision to stay with a roster that's the second-oldest in the NFC.

The Redskins will face the only older team -- the San Francisco 49ers -- Saturday at Candlestick Park in the second round of the NFC playoffs. They won the right to be in the playoffs by winning four of their last five games and the right to advance by eliminating Philadelphia, 20-6, at Veterans Stadium last Saturday.

These days, after having watched thirtysomething Art Monk make two big, tough catches in traffic and Monte Coleman blanket Keith Jackson and Joe Jacoby hold his own against Reggie White, the Redskins appear to be aging nicely.

"Our edge is the guys who've been around," defensive tackle Tim Johnson said. "Our strength now is the guys that people were saying at midseason were too old to play. Those are the guys that step up and carry the younger guys with the right attitude and mentality going into games like these. You see their motivation and attitude pick everyone else up."

The Redskins began these playoffs having not played a postseason game since Super Bowl XXII three years ago. And surprisingly, they have only 17 players who had played in a postseason game.

But . . . there's a nucleus of players with more postseason experience than any team this side of Candlestick Park. Jeff Bostic, Monte Coleman, Darryl Grant, Russ Grimm, Joe Jacoby and Don Warren have played in all 15 playoff games of the Gibbs era. Charles Mann and Darrell Green have played in 11 of the 15 and Art Monk has been in nine.

Only the 49ers, with Joe Montana, Ronnie Lott, Jerry Rice and others can begin to approach the Redskins. And the 49ers have won back-to-back Super Bowls and sprinted through perhaps the greatest stretch in the history of pro sports.

There were oranges thrown on the field in Philadelphia, but the Redskins had seen oranges before. There was a hostile crowd, but the Redskins had seen hostile crowds before. As special teams coach Wayne Sevier yelled on a stroll through the locker room at Redskin Park yesterday, "The old guys are carrying us. They can smell what's out there."

Others sense that as well. Jacoby, 31, and Grimm, 31, played in Super Bowls in their second pro seasons, Monk, 32, his third, Warren, 34, his fourth.

In all 11 Redskins have celebrated their 30th birthdays, including Warren and Coleman, 33, who are only the second and third Redskins ever to play in three decades -- Sammy Baugh was the other.

There were legitimate questions this season about how much those and others had left, but at Redskin Park, they think a lot of those questions have been answered no matter what happens at Candlestick Park.

"When you're around some guys who've been through almost everything, it has to have an effect," quarterback Mark Rypien said. "I said that even before people started saying we were too old. Having a veteran team and guys who've been in these situations has always been a positive for me and the other guys who haven't been through it. They show you the way. The heart and soul of this football team are the Monte Colemans, Jeff Bostics, Joe Jacobys, Art Monks, Charles Mann and Darrell Greens. They've been here and been in these situations and really stepped up a notch and made it clear they'll be leading us. They've gotten it done on the field and our Saturday night meetings have been great."

Oddly enough, the Redskins never thought they were getting that old to begin with. They had only two 30-year-old defensive starters -- Green and Grant -- and seemed to have re-loaded in a number of spots, including the offensive and defensive lines. Team officials could look at the New York Giants without a replacement for Phil Simms and the 49ers knowing they are destined to slip when Montana, Rice and Lott retire to the Hall of Fame.

"There's not any magic to it," Gibbs said. "You go into each season and try to keep the best players. We've got some guys who've been in this thing before and know what it takes just like the 49ers do. They can tell the young ones -- or show them -- what it takes. The 49ers are loaded with that. We have some of it."

Grant is 31 now. But he was 23 when he intercepted Gary Hogeboom's pass and returned it 10 yards for a touchdown in the NFC championship game against Dallas at the end of 1982 season. Now, a decade later, he had one of his best games of the season against the Eagles.

"I still remember the first one," he said. "You always do. I was excited and couldn't wait to play them. It was the biggest game of my life at that time. You can try to do too much but that's where you look to the guys who've been around."