The most valid criticism of the Washington Redskins over these six barren seasons is that losing, relatively speaking, became all too accepted.

That isn't the case anymore.

In the wake of a rather lackadaisical 38-20 loss to the Dallas Cowboys Sunday, the Redskins' first-year owner, Daniel M. Snyder, met with Norv Turner for more than 30 minutes behind a closed door. I would bet it wasn't pretty. Snyder's face was red when he emerged, his red-hot words a perfect match. "This team is going to be focused," Snyder said, exiting Texas Stadium. "I'm flying home. I'm going to get my voice fixed, and then I'm going to use it."

Previously, the sentiment coming from the top would not have such a sharp, immediate edge. Now, with a man of precious little tolerance calling the shots, somebody's going to feel some heat. This week. Monday morning. If Snyder demanded help for defensive coordinator Mike Nolan after a victory, goodness knows what he has in mind after a fairly uninspired 18-point loss to the Cowboys.

Here's why Snyder has every right to be ticked, even with his team 4-2 and entering a stretch of weak opponents: The Redskins backed down Sunday. Now, you won't get many of them to admit it publicly, but they did. They've been doing it for six years. Every time they get to a point where it's time for a team to show what it's made of, the Redskins wilt. Beating the Carolina Panthers and Arizona Cardinals is one thing. Sunday, the Redskins came up against somebody their own size and shriveled up.

This is why people who were talking playoffs all week got ahead of themselves. Let's see this team go take a game off a good team before presuming it will see the light of January.

"These are the games where you mark where you are as a team," lineman Tre Johnson said. "This was a character evaluator. Now, we're right back with everybody else."

And defensive lineman Kenard Lang added: "A team that wants to be great plays well in these kinds of games. . . . Now, we're back to square one."

So many things went wrong for the Redskins. The defense, after a good game against a weakened Cardinals team, reverted to last-in-the-league form. Players blew calls and failed to blitz when they were supposed to; other guys were jumping offside.

The week began on a sour note for the Redskins when, on Wednesday, Albert Connell did about the most ill-advised thing you can do in the National Football League: He challenged Deion Sanders.

That's plain dumb.

He said Deion couldn't cover him.

Note to Connell: Water covers two-thirds of the earth; Deion covers the rest. He's the best cover cornerback who ever lived. You don't say anything to Deion but, "Good morning, sir. How would you like your toast?" You see Deion, you cross to the other side of the street to keep from ticking him off. Here's the entire list of receivers who have earned the right to say anything to or about Deion: Jerry Rice, Michael Irvin. That's it.

And here's what happened the first play of the game: Deion, a notorious non-hitter, swooped in and wasted Stephen Davis for a four-yard loss. Here's what happened on the second play of the game: Deion laid an elbow flush on Connell's chin. It was a nastier and more precise blow than anything Mike Tyson and Orlin Norris threw at each other Saturday night. Can you say, "Set the tone"?

And here's what happened a little later: After suffering a concussion, Deion came back into the game and took a punt 70 yards for a touchdown. The most electrifying thing in pro football is Deion catching a punt. If he runs it back, it can break an opponent's will. The Redskins were down, but they were in striking distance (31-20) when Deion grabbed the game. It certainly helped that replacement punter Brian Hansen gift-wrapped a punt right down the middle of the field into Deion's waiting arms. Hansen was brought in because he's a "directional" punter. His best direction isn't supposed to be due north to a guy wearing No. 21. Anyway, that ended Sunday's drama.

Asked if he thought Connell's words fired up the already flammable Deion, Larry Centers said: "It probably causes him to concentrate a bit more than he would have normally. Oh, he came in fired up."

Brian Mitchell, a guy who talks tons of smack on the field but never during the week for bulletin-board purposes, said: "When you [talk] and you succeed, you're great. But if you talk and lose, you shouldn't have said anything. If you're going to do it, you've got to keep your focus and do your job. If you can't do that, maybe you shouldn't say anything at all."

Let the record show that Connell did make one beautiful touchdown catch (not with Deion covering him), but he had only one other catch for eight yards.

And firing up Deion had other implications. The Cowboys were a wounded, down-in-the-mouth team, hurting physically and psychologically. The Dallas Cowboys, as evidenced by losses to the Eagles and Giants, are not that good this year. All they've done this season is beat up on the Redskins. Against their other four opponents, the Cowboys have totaled 79 points. In two games against the Redskins, they've scored 79 points. The Cowboys' offense, without Irvin, is not much. And Chan Gailey's coaching staff, with or without Irvin, is conservative and unimaginative. More than a few players are frustrated with the staff's approach to offense.

With Deion leading the charge on defense and special teams, the Cowboys' offense came to life. There couldn't have been a better time to let sleeping dogs lie, but Connell woke 'em up Wednesday.

And since the Redskins couldn't respond at the same level, some fannies are on the hot seat. Snyder wants some answers.

The Redskins haven't earned any benefit of the doubt yet, so Snyder isn't giving any. No matter what the record, you can't justify allowing 38 points to the only other team in your division that matters. With reason, it's going to be a long, uncomfortable week for the Redskins, a team that still hasn't learned to win the big game.