When the Redskins went to the locker room at halftime yesterday, clinging to a 10-6 lead over the Giants that should have been 17-3, there might as well have been a gigantic full-length mirror in front of every cubicle. This erratic team that often confuses everybody was about to get a long, clear, indisputable look at itself.

Like it or not.

This time, when the Redskins asked, "Mirror, mirror on the wall," they got exactly the answer they wanted. Time will tell how much their 23-13 win over New York means. But at least for one week, alone atop the NFC East, the Redskins can lay to rest any doubts about themselves and enjoy their turkey with true playoff relish.

"That's as good a win as I've been involved with, probably ever. When you get challenged, you've got two choices. The one that matters is that you respond," said Redskins Coach Norv Turner, who told the team at halftime in no uncertain terms that a moment of truth was at hand.

"You can criticize this group. You can criticize me when we screw up," he added, visibly quivering. " . . . But don't question their effort, their character, their ability to compete."

All that--especially the Redskins' ability to compete with intensity and poise when a division lead was at stake--was very much in question when the Redskins left the field at the half. Only those who have not watched the last six seasons could doubt it.

All halftimes are a chance for new strategy and fresh energy. But, for the Redskins, this was much more. Were they really the erratic bunch their critics mocked in recent years: good enough to tease, but not to win? Or were they the team they believed themselves to be: gifted and playoff-bound? A contender?

"Norv laid it all out [at halftime]," said one Redskin. On owner Dan Snyder's birthday, were they going to blow another winnable game--especially after tossing the Giants all over FedEx Field like junk mail in the first half. That would be four losses in five games.

Or were the Redskins going to face their demons and forget that awful fumbled handoff at the Giants 1-yard line on first and goal with 1:48 left in the half? Yes, the Redskins fumbled away an almost certain touchdown that would have put them in command, 17-3. Instead, the Giants, like any decent team, responded by driving 71 yards in 98 seconds for a half-ending field goal that ripped away every shred of momentum from Washington. And reawakened every Redskins nightmare from the last six seasons.

The answers came fast. And they were decisive. Especially from the Redskins' defense that entered the game ranked 31st in yardage allowed and No. 1 in criticism endured. In the second half, the Redskins got the final three of their five turnovers, including a 42-yard touchdown with a recovered fumble by defensive end Marco Coleman for a 20-6 lead.

While Washington did much to win this game--especially Stephen Davis with 183 yards rushing on 33 bludgeoning carries--the evening's lingering question was why the Giants did so much to help the Redskins.

When left to their own devices, the Redskins have been known to lose intensity, concentration or confidence. Even the Redskins, after all their effort and anguish, have been mystified by their wildly erratic results. Why on earth would you taunt such a team on its own field? Why would you ensure that they remain motivated, focused and angry?

Clearly the Giants were embarrassed by their one-sided loss to the Redskins two months ago. The yapping, late-hitting, finger-pointing Giants were the Redskins' best friends. "It was great to beat the team that was talking trash about us all week," said guard Tre Johnson. Did they talk trash early in the game? "Early, middle, late. I don't think anybody likes anybody in this division. I love that."

"The Giants have always been a bunch of trash-talkers," said linebacker Derek Smith, who had an interception. "But it came back to get 'em this time. That guy who was trying to show how tough he was with a late hit, he got us a big first down."

"That guy" was safety Percy Ellsworth, who, with three minutes to play, did for the piling-on penalty what Gus Frerotte did for the wall-head-butt and Michael Westbrook did for the thrown helmet.

With 3:08 to play and trailing by just seven points, the Giants stopped scrambling Brad Johnson short of a first down at the Redskins 40-yard line to force a Washington punt.

As Johnson fell, tackle Jon Jansen brush-blocked Ellsworth away from the fallen quarterback--a legal, smart play. As Jansen lay on the ground, Ellsworth jumped on the prone Jansen and gave him a forearm shot to the back of the head. Flag. Penalty. Redskins first down. Six plays later, Brett Conway kicked a 37-year field goal with 21 seconds left to ice the game.

Would the Redskins' defense, which had allowed a 70-yard New York scoring drive earlier in the period, have saved the day? Please, don't answer that. Be respectful of the defense--for once.

"I don't know what he was thinking," said the enormous Jansen, who probably thought he'd been "roughed" by a mosquito.

True to form, the Giants kept helping the Redskins even after the game was over. "Here's the big picture," said Giants cornerback Jason Sehorn, who is lucky he can still see it after the way the 234-pound Davis trampled him all day. "We are in a terrible division. . . . One game does not end the season. . . . There are six more [games] to go. Redskins are going to lose. We pretty much rely on that."

Some of the Redskins' old pros were taking the traditional midseason NFL line.

"I'm not going to make more of this than it is," said Darrell Green, who had one interception and deflected a pass with a hard hit that Smith intercepted.

"This doesn't mean a damn thing until January 3rd," said Turner.

"If we play well this week and don't play well next week, it does not mean anything," said Coleman. "Take it with a grain of salt."

No, let's not.

Just 24 hours before this game, Turner was asked its importance. At home. Division game. Three-way tie for first place. Redskins in a scary season-endangering slump. "When you put everything together, it couldn't get any bigger," he said.

That was the truth, not the obligatory postgame cliche.

Write it in big letters. The Redskins faced a big moment in a big game against a division rival. (Okay, "a terrible division.") They looked in the mirror. They took it straight at the loquacious Giants and came up big. Five turnovers, all created by big hits and blitzes. Over 200 yards rushing, almost all of it smash-mouth style.

In seven days, first place is up for grabs again. In the NFL, a team that dreams that it's on the rise has to recreate its reputation week to week. Nonetheless, in his six years in Washington, Turner has never fielded a team in an important game that answered the call as well as the Redskins did in the second half yesterday.

It proves nothing. But it feels like a start.