The Washington Redskins believed their season was on the line yesterday, and they played like it. It wasn't elegant. But the Redskins rode the aggressive play of their defense and the gritty running of tailback Stephen Davis to a 23-13 victory over the New York Giants before 78,641 at FedEx Field.

"I definitely think our season was riding on this game," guard Tre Johnson said. "This was the defining moment for how the rest of our season was going to go."

The Redskins (6-4) ended their losing streak at two games and beat the Giants (5-5) for the second time this season. They moved into sole possession of first place in the NFC East, a game ahead of the Giants and Dallas Cowboys.

Coach Norv Turner was very emotional as he praised his players' efforts during his postgame news conference.

"That's as good a win as I've been involved with, probably ever," Turner said. ". . . Our team was challenged. They responded. They responded in a big way. You can criticize this group. You can criticize me when we screw up. We call the wrong play sometimes. We go the wrong way sometimes. . . . But don't question their effort, their character, their ability to compete."

The Redskins won despite a number of mistakes. Place kicker Brett Conway missed field goal attempts of 38, 50 and 27 yards. Wide receiver Albert Connell negated a touchdown run by Davis with a holding penalty. Davis and quarterback Brad Johnson botched a handoff at the Giants 1-yard line, resulting in a fumble. Wide receiver Michael Westbrook, playing with a cast over the broken bone in his right wrist, caught only one pass.

Thanks to Davis and the defense, the Redskins won anyway. Davis, playing with a bruised thigh, rushed for 183 yards--the highest single-game total in the NFL this season--on 33 carries. He became the first NFC runner to top the 1,000-yard mark this season and scored his 15th rushing touchdown of the year.

The Redskins' defense, ranked last in the NFL, held an opponent to fewer than 20 points for only the second time this season. The Redskins knocked Giants quarterback Kent Graham from the game because of a concussion. Ndukwe Kalu forced a fumble by backup Kerry Collins that was returned for a touchdown by fellow defensive end Marco Coleman to open the fourth quarter, giving the Redskins a 20-6 lead.

The Giants had only 72 rushing yards and committed five turnovers. The Redskins, using blitzes effectively, had four sacks.

"We rose to the occasion," defensive tackle Dan Wilkinson said. "We made plays and put pressure on the quarterback. . . . You get backed up against the wall so many times, but you have to just keep fighting."

Conway did connect on three field goals, including a 37-yarder with 21 seconds remaining.

"I talked to [his players Saturday] night, and the last thing I told them was, 'We have to be a smart football team,' " Giants Coach Jim Fassel said. "I can't fault the effort. But what mattered is, we lost the game and put ourselves in a much tougher situation. You can't turn the ball over the way we did and win."

The Giants had vowed last week to get revenge for their 50-21 loss to the Redskins in Week 2, and yesterday's game was emotionally charged from the outset. There was plenty of talk on the field, and there were regular shoving matches after plays.

The Redskins marched 55 yards for a touchdown on their second possession. Johnson got fullback Larry Centers involved in the passing attack, connecting with him for 16 yards early on the drive and then for 10 yards to get the ball to the Giants 11-yard line.

An unsportsmanlike conduct call against Connell pushed the Redskins back to the 23, but Connell made up for that mistake by drawing a pass interference penalty against cornerback Phillippi Sparks in the end zone. On the next play, Davis carried the ball over from the 1 for a 7-0 lead.

The Giants tried a flea-flicker off a reverse, but that produced only an end zone interception by cornerback Darrell Green. The Redskins went nowhere but got the ball back at the Giants 32 when safety Sam Shade intercepted a tipped pass.

Davis ran for 13 yards and, two plays later, took a pitch to the left and ran through nothing but open field to get into the end zone. Connell, however, was called for holding, and Conway missed a 38-yard field goal attempt wide right.

The Giants failed to get a first down, but Johnson underthrew Connell on a flea-flicker. Safety Percy Ellsworth made the interception and provided a 26-yard return that set up a 44-yard field goal by Cary Blanchard.

Davis went straight through the middle of the Giants' defense and broke into the clear for a 49-yard run to the New York 11. Johnson had tight end Stephen Alexander open on third down but threw short and incomplete. Conway's 24-yard field goal increased the Redskins' lead to 10-3.

The Redskins got the ball back with just more than four minutes remaining in the half and moved downfield easily. Connell dropped Johnson's pass in the end zone, but drew an interference penalty on Jason Sehorn for a first down at the 1.

With linebacker Jessie Armstead penetrating into the backfield, though, Davis never got a firm grip on Johnson's handoff, and the ball bounced off his chest. Defensive tackle Keith Hamilton made the recovery for the Giants. The New York offense moved swiftly down the field, and Blanchard connected from 44 yards as time expired in the half to get the Giants to within 10-6.

Conway missed a 50-yard field goal try to end the Redskins' first possession of the third quarter. They got the ball back on linebacker Derek Smith's tipped-ball interception, but went nowhere. They stopped the Giants again, however, and Brian Mitchell's 33-yard punt return--his longest of the season--set up Conway's 21-yard field goal.

The Giants had third and five on the first play of the fourth quarter. Kalu got around tackle Roman Oben and hit Collins from behind. The ball popped into the air and went directly to Coleman, who raced 42 yards to the end zone to make it a two-touchdown lead.

The Giants didn't wilt. Charles Way's one-yard touchdown plunge got them to 20-13 with 10 1/2 minutes to play.

The Giants had the Redskins stopped when Johnson's third-down scramble came up short of a first down with just more than three minutes left. But the Redskins kept the ball when Ellsworth hit rookie right tackle Jon Jansen after the play for a personal foul. Johnson connected with tight end James Jenkins for a 30-yard gain on Jenkins's first catch of the season, and Conway's field goal ensured that the Redskins would be back in the win column.

"You can't keep losing and saying, 'We're still in first place,' " defensive tackle Dana Stubblefield said. "At some point, you have to make a stand."

The emotional day for the Redskins ended with the players presenting a cake and singing to owner Daniel M. Snyder in the locker room after they already had given him the best present of all--a victory--for his 35th birthday.

And sole possession of first place in the NFC East. "You can't ask for more," Snyder said.