Practicing with a pared-down cast on his broken right wrist, Michael Westbrook looked impressive enough yesterday for Washington Redskins Coach Norv Turner to declare that he expects the starting wide receiver to play in Sunday's critical NFC East game against the New York Giants, barring an unforeseen setback.

"Mike looked good, caught the ball well and handled the ball well," Turner said. "We'll see how it goes through the week. It's obviously a lot different in terms of intensity and contact [during a game], but I would expect him to be able to play."

Meantime, the Redskins were hit with more unwelcome fallout from last week's 35-28 loss to the Philadelphia Eagles, when defensive tackle Dan Wilkinson was unable to practice because of a strained back.

"I felt it during the game," said Wilkinson, an anchor of the defensive line, as he left Redskin Park before the afternoon practice. "I took several hits to the back. It got progressively worse from Monday until [yesterday]. I've been getting tons of treatment on it."

Wilkinson said he intended to play Sunday if at all possible. "If the game were [yesterday]," he added, "I probably wouldn't be able to do it. But I have a few days. I'm pretty confident I'll be able to go by Sunday."

Westbrook's quick progress, however, exceeded expectations. During the 20 minutes of practice that is open to the media, Westbrook didn't drop a ball. At one point, after wide receiver Albert Connell dropped a pass, Westbrook held up his right hand, encased in the hard cast, and hollered across the field, "Want to borrow this?"

And as TV crews filmed the wide receivers running their drills, Turner, clearly pleased with Westbrook's effort, shouted: "Bring those cameras every day!"

Westbrook was fitted before practice with a scaled-back cast that covers his right forearm and most of his thumb, while leaving his fingers and the upper two-thirds of his palm exposed. The cast allowed him to wrap his right fingers around the football, which he quickly transferred to his left hand and tucked under his arm on each reception.

While he said the cast left him feeling like "I've got something in my hand," Westbrook was pleased with his results. Asked if it hurt, he snapped: "Of course! It's a broken bone!"

Westbrook broke his scaphoid, the bone at the base of his thumb, in the first half of last Sunday's loss to Philadelphia. While such injuries are typically slow to heal, Westbrook proclaimed Tuesday that he intended to practice this week in hopes of playing Sunday. His talk grew more bold yesterday.

"I'm not going to let this stop me from playing, from reaching my goals--playing 16 games and going to the Pro Bowl," Westbrook said. "I've got two hands. I'm not real concerned too much about it. I'm going to go out there and do my thing."

Trainer Bubba Tyer said he likely would upgrade the receiver from "doubtful" to "questionable" this morning.

Said Turner: "Unless there's something that happens between now and then--I wouldn't know what that would be--I would think he'd have a good chance of playing. . . . If he can play, he'll start."

In playing with a broken scaphoid, Westbrook is risking further injury to the wrist, Tyer said.

Westbrook dismissed that concern.

"It's a risk I'm taking," he said. "I'm not about to stop and leave my team hanging because I have a sore wrist. This is a chance I have to take."

And while it is painful, passing game coordinator Terry Robiskie said pain should not affect the decision about whether Westbrook plays. All Robiskie cares about is whether Westbrook, with a broken wrist, can catch the ball and hang onto it.

"If he can't hold on to it, he can't play," Robiskie said. "It's one of those positions you've got to have your hands to play."

At 6 feet 3, 220 pounds, Westbrook is a handful to defend.

But Robiskie said he's not interested in having him on the field if he can't handle his share of receptions. "If he can't catch it, then he can't play," Robiskie said. "I don't need his presence. Just standing out there doesn't help us."

If Westbrook doesn't play, veteran Irving Fryar will take over his duties. Robiskie said he was confident Fryar, 37, would handle the assignment ably.

"He's a polished guy," Robiskie said of Fryar. "Mentally, he's very sharp. He's a guy, from what I've seen, that . . . you don't have to throw him the ball every day [for him] to stay sharp; he's a professional."

The success of the passing game will likely be critical to the Redskins' chances on Sunday, with three teams tied atop the NFC East (Washington, New York and Dallas, all 5-4).

The Redskins embarrassed the Giants, 50-21, in their Sept. 19 meeting. Westbrook had four receptions for 59 yards in the game, including a 19-yard touchdown catch. The Giants lacked cornerback Jason Sehorn, and backup Jeremy Lincoln had a fitful time covering Connell. Sehorn will be back in the lineup on Sunday, though a knee injury to the team's other starting cornerback, Conrad Hamilton, means Lincoln will likely get playing time.

Meantime, Turner will be rooting for Wilkinson's return to the defensive line. He leads the team in sacks, with six.

Tyer characterized the injury as a strained back and muscle spasms, but said Wilkinson would be all right.

Said Turner: "Any time a guy can't play on Wednesday, I'm concerned. Hopefully, it's something that will go away."