For three quarters yesterday, the Washington Redskins used a Walt Disney script to get their season underway. But the rest of their day was something out of Stephen King, and they ended up with a loss as horrific as they come.

The Dallas Cowboys erased a 21-point, fourth-quarter deficit, then got a 76-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Troy Aikman to virtually uncovered wide receiver Raghib Ismail just over four minutes into overtime to beat the Redskins, 41-35, yesterday before 79,237 at Redskins Stadium.

It was the Redskins' worst fourth-quarter collapse since 1946, when they turned a 24-0 lead into a 28-24 loss to the Philadelphia Eagles.

"We should have put them away, and we didn't," reserve cornerback Darryl Pounds said. "It's devastating. They should have never come back. It should have never been close."

New owner Daniel Snyder and the largest home crowd in team history were ready to celebrate a stylish victory. The Redskins got big days from new starting quarterback Brad Johnson, running back Stephen Davis and wide receivers Michael Westbrook and Albert Connell and led 35-14 early in the fourth quarter. They had overcome first-half fumbles by Davis and Johnson deep in Dallas territory, and shredded the 14-3 advantage Dallas held early in the second quarter.

But the Cowboys would not quit. Running back Emmitt Smith's one-yard touchdown run with 10 minutes 43 seconds to play made the score 35-21, and Dallas tied the score on two touchdown passes from Aikman to wide receiver Michael Irvin, the second with 1:46 left in regulation. A potential winning field goal try by Redskins place kicker Brett Conway as time expired never materialized, as holder Matt Turk mishandled Dan Turk's snap and Conway never got a chance to put his foot to what would have been a 41-yard attempt.

The Redskins' opening drive of overtime fizzled, and Aikman's play-action fake to Smith on a third-and-two play ensured that no Redskins player was within 10 yards of Ismail when he caught Aikman's throw at the Washington 40-yard line. He sprinted to the end zone.

"It's hard," said Redskins Coach Norv Turner, whose record in overtime games is 2-5-1. ". . . I don't know that anyone ever had a game like that. To be a good team, you have to find a way to finish people off."

The Redskins piled up 504 yards. Johnson completed 20 of 33 passes for 382 yards. Westbrook made five catches for 159 yards, including a 41-yard touchdown, and Connell had four receptions for 137 yards, including a 50-yard touchdown. Davis had his first 100-yard rushing game in the NFL, with 109 yards on 24 carries. The offensive line did a superb job. And Davis, the wide receivers and Johnson's blockers had been the Redskins' biggest concerns entering the season. Still, the Redskins were dominated in the fourth quarter, making just three first downs to Dallas's 16, with the Cowboys controlling the ball for 11:15 to Washington's 3:45.

The defense that looked impenetrable during the preseason let down the Redskins, however. Smith rushed for 109 yards on 23 carries. And Aikman completed 28 of 49 passes for 362 yards and five touchdowns.

"That was probably the wildest game I've ever been part of," said Aikman, who also threw three interceptions.

The Redskins had plenty to ponder. The Cowboys recovered an onside kick in the fourth quarter. The Redskins offense stopped moving the ball, and the defense was plagued by penalties. Redskins defenders jumped offside four times on one fourth-quarter touchdown drive by Dallas, and had 12 players on the field on another late play.

"From me jumping offsides to the muffed kick, that killed us," said defensive end Marco Coleman, who jumped offside twice. "When you talk about championships, you can't make that many mistakes. It opened up some eyes. It let some people know we need to work on some areas where we're deficient."

Still, the Redskins could have won in regulation. A questionable pass-interference penalty against Dallas cornerback Kevin Mathis gave them a 24-yard gain and a first down at the Cowboys 23 with 12 seconds remaining. Running back Brian Mitchell was stopped for no gain, and the Redskins called a timeout with three seconds to go. Conway lined up for the potential winning kick. But Dan Turk's slightly high snap squirted through his brother's hands, and Conway was left trying to run with the ball instead of kicking it. He ended up flipping it into the air, and was credited with an incomplete pass.

"The snap was catchable," Matt Turk said. "It hit my hands. Anything that hits your hands, you should catch."

Dan Turk also was willing to accept the blame, saying: "The snap was high and outside."

The Redskins won the coin toss for overtime, but their drive stalled when Johnson was sacked on a third-and-three from the Dallas 45. Matt Turk's punt was downed at the 5. Smith fumbled on the Cowboys' first play but fullback Daryl Johnston recovered. Smith took a swing pass from Aikman and got a first down, and two plays later Dallas was facing third and two.

Aikman faked a handoff to Smith as cornerback Darrell Green passed off Ismail to reserve safety Matt Stevens. Stevens, though, was fooled by the fake to Smith and was running toward the line of scrimmage as Ismail raced past him. Neither Stevens nor fellow reserve safety Jamel Williams came close to catching Ismail. The Redskins' secondary was depleted because three starters--rookie cornerback Champ Bailey and safeties Leomont Evans and Sam Shade--were suffering from leg cramps.

"When I looked up, he was gone," Williams said.

"We gave them chances to make plays," Pounds said, "and they made them. We can't do that. We have to put a team away. We made mistakes, and it caught up with us."

Snyder delivered a hang-in-there speech in the locker room after the game, and the Redskins did their best to remain positive. But they face back-to-back road games against the Giants and Jets.

Snyder "came in and said, 'That's one game,' " Green said. "He had the same sentiments I have. It's one game. We have to move forward."

The Cowboys took their 14-3 lead as Aikman connected with tight end David LaFleur for touchdown passes of 15 and 14 yards to conclude Dallas's first two possessions. In between, the Redskins got a 25-yard field goal from Conway.

The Redskins moved the ball easily against a Dallas defense that was missing tackle Leon Lett, who has been suspended for violating the NFL's substance-abuse policy, and injured cornerbacks Deion Sanders and Kevin Smith. Westbrook beat safety George Teague to catch a 41-yard touchdown pass and get the Redskins to 14-10. Davis fumbled at the Dallas 1, but Stevens's interception set up Conway's 42-yard field goal that cut Dallas's lead to 14-13. Johnson's fumble on a third down from the Cowboys 4 kept the Redskins from leading at halftime.

But they outscored the Cowboys 22-0 in the third quarter. Bailey intercepted Aikman on the second half's opening possession, and Davis's three-yard touchdown run and two-point conversion carry put the Redskins in front, 21-14. Davis got around the left end for a seven-yard touchdown run with 2:59 left in the third quarter, and following a punt by Dallas, Connell made a brilliant catch between two defenders for a 50-yard touchdown and a 21-point lead with 1:04 left in the period.

The Redskins could do nothing in the fourth quarter. The Cowboys stuck mostly to the running game for the 70-yard touchdown drive that made it 35-21 with 10:43 to go. Turner said he and special teams coach LeCharls McDaniel warned their players about the possibility of an onside kick, but the Cowboys recovered anyway. Turner's instant-replay challenge that the ball hadn't traveled the required 10 yards didn't produce a reversal.

The Cowboys missed on a fourth-and-13 play from the Redskins 28, but Washington went three plays and out. With Bailey, who had covered Irvin effectively for most of the day, on the sideline, Irvin beat Pounds for a 37-yard touchdown.

Westbrook caught a 31-yard pass to start the Redskins' next drive, but it led to nothing. Dallas got the ball at its 10 with 3:01 left and no timeouts remaining. No matter. The Redskins helped with their penalties, and Irvin cut inside the smaller Green for a 12-yard touchdown catch on a third-and-eight with 1:46 to go. Richie Cunningham's extra point clanked off the left upright but went through to tie the game. The Redskins offense went three plays and out, but Pounds's interception on a tipped ball provided the opportunity for Conway to trot on the field for the possible winning kick.

"We made a lot of mistakes at the end of the game," Westbrook said. "In the fourth quarter, we couldn't move the ball. We have to play together."

CAPTION: Good Fake, Goodbye

With 11:05 left in overtime, Dallas had third down and two at its 24. The Cowboys lined up with two tight ends, two running backs and Raghib Ismail as the only wideout, to the right. Redskins cornerback Darrell Green lined up opposite Ismail, while both Redskins safeties and the other cornerback moved up to act as linebackers. When the ball was snapped, Ismail cut in and ran past Green as quarterback Troy Aikman faked a handoff to Emmitt Smith. Ismail also ran past safety Matt Stevens, who had moved in. Aikman threw to him at the Redskins 40, where he caught it and sprinted downfield for the winning touchdown.

-- Seth Emerson

CAPTION: Play of the Game: Botched Snap

With three seconds left in regulation the Redskins lined up for a 41-yard field goal attempt to win the game. Center Dan Turk snapped the ball cleanly to his brother, Matt, who dropped the ball. Place kicker Brett Conway picked up the ball and ran to his left toward the end zone, but the Cowboys' Charlie Williams and George Teague converged on him. Just as Teague hit him, Conway tossed the ball forward, where it was batted away by Dallas lineman Greg Ellis.

-- Seth Emerson