The talk at Redskin Park in recent weeks mostly has been about the NFL's last-ranked defense, about the punter's finger injury and how he got it, and about a team and a coaching staff under intense pressure to win.

It has been easy to forget that the Washington Redskins have five victories and are tied for first place in the NFC East. For that, they largely have quarterback Brad Johnson to thank.

He is coming off one of his least effective games of the season, having completed only eight of his 23 second-half throws in last Sunday's loss to the Buffalo Bills. He has become a victim of his own early success. When he is even a notch below terrific now, the team's followers wonder what's wrong.

But he has been one of the league's most valuable players this season and the Redskins know that wherever they go, Johnson will lead them.

As he made his midseason evaluation of his play yesterday, Johnson--as usual--avoided getting carried away.

"You can look back to 1996 and '97," he said. "I think my play then and now is very similar. I think I've always played pretty consistent throughout my career. It's always been about the same level.

"It's new here because no one knows me. The reason no one has seen me is, I've never gotten any attention or I've been injured. Health-wise, I think I'm doing great right now. I feel like I'm playing some good ball and being smart with my decisions."

Indeed he is, and that is why his first eight games with the Redskins yielded 15 touchdown passes and only three interceptions in 259 throws. He is completing 61 percent of his passes, and is more than halfway to what would be his first 4,000-yard season in the NFL.

He is on target when he says that his '96 and '97 seasons with the Minnesota Vikings approached his current pace. His completion percentage this year actually is below his career mark entering this season of 62 percent. But if he can remain healthy, he is well on his way to a season that could put him on the top shelf of NFL quarterbacks to stay.

His single-season career bests in the NFL are 3,036 yards and 20 touchdowns.

"I feel like I've played pretty well," Johnson said. "I've made some plays to help our team out. That's what I've talked about, making the extra one or two plays to help our team win an extra one or two games. We have one of the most potent offenses in the league, but I think we can get much better.

"I can be a little bit more accurate. I can be more consistent. We've played at a high level already, but I think we can take it to another level. I can get more familiar with the system and more comfortable with the players."

Coach Norv Turner said he sees no particular areas in which he'd like to see Johnson improve in the second half of the season. He says his quarterback shouldn't necessarily be judged by his lofty first-half standards.

"We started so fast and so hot, people got the feeling the ball was going to go up and down the field all the time," said Turner, whose team has the league's second-ranked offense. "We just want to play consistent, and give our team the best possible chance to win."

The Redskins' major concern entering the season was keeping Johnson healthy. He raised eyebrows during training camp when he limped around at times on a surgically repaired knee. The club's rebuilt offensive line has been its most pleasant surprise, and while there is a long list of ailing quarterbacks around the league, Johnson isn't on it.

"You look at Steve Young, Troy Aikman, Dan Marino, Steve McNair, Jake Plummer--the list goes on," Johnson said. "I was the one taking the brunt back in the summertime, and I just hadn't been given enough time to get healthy. Injuries are part of the game.

"Fortunately for me, I haven't had too many hard hits this year. I feel great right now. My legs are strong. I can play another five or six years, without a doubt."

When they traded first-, second- and third-round draft choices over a two-year span to the Vikings for Johnson in February, the Redskins hoped to end their six-season playoff drought. Now they can hope for more.

"It will make me happy if we get into the playoffs, but it won't make me satisfied," Johnson said. " . . . I'm not here to just collect a check. I'm not here to win a game or make the playoffs. I'm here to win a Super Bowl. If we don't do that, I'll never be satisfied.

"I think we're playing good enough to put ourselves in position to make the playoffs. We have to play much better if we're going to go further in the playoffs."

It is a season in which no dominant team has emerged in the NFC, and the Redskins are one of the clubs hoping to fill the void. Johnson said that's within reach, but he indicated he doesn't regard the team as a Super Bowl contender at this point.

"We're not at that level yet," he said. "We have to play week in and week out. We're not a team like Minnesota when they went 15-1 last year, and expected to be in the Super Bowl. We have a good enough team to do whatever we want to do, but we have to play some better football. . . . We need to play better against the better teams in the big games."

CAPTION: "I feel like I'm playing some good ball and being smart with my decisions," quarterback Brad Johnson (14) said of his first season with the Redskins.