One week after playing its best game of the season, the Washington Redskins' defense came to Texas Stadium Sunday afternoon and turned in a performance that left both players and coaches hanging their heads in embarrassment.

While no single phase of the Redskins' game clicked in the 38-20 loss to the Dallas Cowboys, the defense's effort--riddled with missed assignments and costly penalties--was particularly disheartening.

The defense allowed the Cowboys' sputtering running game to get back on track, with Emmitt Smith gaining 80 yards on 24 carries, including a one-yard touchdown run. The defense also was ineffective on third downs, allowing the Cowboys to convert 60 percent (9 of 15) of their attempts.

While there was ample blame to go around in a somber locker room afterward, the game's wild swings of momentum turned a final time in the Cowboys' favor on a pass interference call against Darryl Pounds in the fourth quarter.

With Dallas seemingly buried on third and 20 at its 9, Pounds made an ill-advised play on wide receiver Alvin Harper, who had dropped his previous ball, showing obvious rust from an 18-month stretch without a catch. The interference call advanced the ball 17 yards.

Three plays later, the defense gave up a 52-yard reception to wideout Jason Tucker when the defensive backs seemed to hesitate once flags flew for offside and holding penalties on their teammates up front. Aikman finished off the 93-yard drive, which probably never should have advanced past the Dallas 10, by rumbling one yard for a touchdown that stretched the Cowboys' lead to 31-20, with about 11 minutes left.

After the game, Pounds defended his move on Harper and suggested that the officiating was less than even-handed.

"I'm trying to knock the ball down," Pounds said. "Certain players, they're going to call pass interference on. I just happen to be one of them. I mean, I'm not making excuses. That's just the way this league is."

Coach Norv Turner fingered the penalty as a turning point in the game. As for his team's lapse on the 52-yard reception, Turner was at a loss. Cornerback Darrell Green finally brought Tucker down after he scooted past rookie Champ Bailey and safety Leomont Evans.

"I don't know what happened on that," Turner said. "They had an out and up pattern. I don't know if the players hesitated, or they just got beat on the route."

Turner didn't rule out making changes--to either the team's personnel or coaching staff--in his remarks afterward.

"When you get in this situation, you look at every possible way of getting yourself better," Turner said. "If we want to get done what we want to get done over a long period of time, we have to find a way to be ready to play in this type of game."

There was little positive for the Redskins to take away from the defense's performance in the most critical game of the season. With Washington entering the game in sole possession of the NFC East lead, the stakes could hardly have been higher. Washington (4-2) now is tied with Dallas (4-2), but Dallas holds the tiebreaker, having swept the Redskins for a second consecutive season.

Washington's defense has been under intense scrutiny from owner Daniel M. Snyder since its fourth-quarter collapse squandered a 21-point lead and cost a victory in the season opener against Dallas at home.

Snyder's ire was stoked even more when the defense allowed Carolina to score 21 consecutive points in Week 4 before the offense stormed back to deliver a 38-36 victory. The subsequent hiring of defensive specialist Bill Arnsparger seemed to help, with the defense holding its own in last week's 24-10 victory over Arizona.

"Last week we hardly had any mental mistakes; this week, we did," defensive end Kenard Lang said. "We blew calls, we were jumping offsides. We just basically shot ourselves in the foot. A great team wins big games like that. We're back to square one. We've got to start all over again."

The Cowboys jumped out to a 17-0 start after a miserable Redskins first quarter, in which the offense managed one first down and ran the ball three times for a loss of four yards.

Green struggled to keep up with receiver Raghib Ismail, who scored the Cowboys' first touchdown on a perfectly thrown 13-yard fade from quarterback Troy Aikman (20 of 32, for 244 yards and two touchdowns).

Smith was stopped twice on the Washington 1 in the second quarter, but made it work the third time for the score that made it 17-0. At that point, the Redskins had given up 44 unanswered points to Dallas, going back to the final moments of the season-opening loss.

"Against this team, we've got to get more aggressive," defensive end Marco Coleman said. "These guys aren't doing anything different from other teams. It's very simple what they do. We've just got to pick up the intensity and play with a little bit more urgency. We know we can play a lot better. For some reason, this team has been able to do some things to us that we should be able to handle."

The Redskins struggled with the pass rush, too. Aikman was 7 for 7 on a 10-play drive that was capped by a four-yard touchdown pass to tight end David LaFleur. Aikman faked a handoff to Smith, then fired the ball at LaFleur, left unguarded in the end zone.

The Redskins clawed back into the game with a 44-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Albert Connell that made it 24-20 with about two minutes remaining in the third quarter.

But the Cowboys answered with their improbable 93-yard drive, although their linemen committed penalties on the first two plays and receivers had two consecutive drops.

However, Pounds said he didn't feel his interference call turned the game. "One play doesn't make a difference," he said.