There's nothing quite like a high-stakes, mid-December NFL game with juicy subplots. And that's exactly the scenario that exists for the Arizona Cardinals' visit for Sunday's game against the Washington Redskins. All that's on the line are a spot in the playoffs and some coaching careers. You want genuine, raw emotion? The Redskins for several days have publicly questioned the wisdom of assigning line judge Byron Boston to work their game at Detroit last week. The truly insulted party isn't really Byron Boston, but his son, David, who only plays for the Cardinals and has 60 minutes to take out his anger on the Redskins.

I always made it a rule not trash somebody's daddy before we got into it on the playground. The Redskins seemed to have violated this basic tenet, by playing the dozens as they prepare to face the son of the ref. After declaring that his father is his hero, a man he looks up to even as an adult, David Boston told reporters in Tempe, Ariz., this week: "My father's an honest guy. I would never talk like that about anybody's father." Boston went on to say he didn't get angry about the comments. I think he's seething. If you feel your old man has been cheap-shotted in public, you have every legitimate reason to work yourself into the nastiest revenge-seeking mood imaginable. And I would suspect the Cardinals will have Boston's back.

It's not that the Redskins, on the other side of this issue, don't have the right to wonder about the NFL's willingness to assign Byron Boston to work their game. Let's give this a slightly different context: In the heat of a pennant race between the New York Yankees and the Boston Red Sox, would it be acceptable for the father of a Yankees player to be calling balls and strikes in a Red Sox-Blue Jays game? Probably not. Not because the father is lacking in integrity, but because a league should do everything it can not to put a game official in that position. The appearance of possible impropriety--not any perceived lack of integrity--is reason enough to assign Byron Boston to games not even indirectly involving the Cardinals.

On the other hand, I'm certain Byron Boston wasn't the Redskins' problem against the Lions. The Redskins did dumb things in another big game. Anything else is revisionist. The easiest person to pin this on would be Michael Westbrook because he broached the subject repeatedly and publicly. But this is way bigger than Westbrook. If the Redskins' powers-that-be wanted public discussion of this thing nipped in the bud on Monday, it would have been. Westbrook isn't out there alone on this one, even though he was the vocal one. The fact that this mini-drama lasted until Thursday suggests that his position was embraced by the higher-ups.

The question I asked Coach Norv Turner yesterday was whether this was the kind of mid-week issue that often blows up in a team's face on Sunday. "There are team issues, and there are media issues," he said. "Michael had to deal with the fallout, but I think this is a media issue and not in any way something that is bothering the team."

The thing most likely to bother the Redskins on Sunday, even more than David Boston, is Jake Plummer. It seems every week Plummer plays poorly for three quarters, then becomes John Elway and leads the Cardinals to victory. Plummer's stats suggest he's some Division II guy who wouldn't scare anybody; his performances late in games, when it really matters, are likely to drive the Redskins nuts.

It's a game the Cardinals have to win.

It's a game the Redskins have to win.

We've heard this before, right? Like a couple of weeks ago when the Giants visited the Redskins. "We've had it said before that, 'Well, if you guys lose to [fill-in-the-blank], then it's over,' " Turner said. "Having said that, I'm not about to back away from the fact that this is a critical game, yes, especially when you start talking about the playoffs and playing for first place in your division."

Some of us presumed the Cardinals were dead at the end of October. But once again, they've made a late charge to climb back into the playoff picture. "Every year, something it seems keeps them from putting it all together the entire season," Turner said. "But they've got a really good defense. And Jake has played really well in the fourth quarters."

As good as the Cardinals defense is, the Redskins would still like to keep Plummer off the field. That would mean the Redskins should run the ball more, right? "We need to run the ball, there's no question about it," Turner said. The second-guessing from last Sunday is still ringing. Turner has closely examined the plays that were called against the Lions. It would be good for Stephen Davis to carry the ball 25 times. Turner called his number five times in the third quarter against the Lions, but one carry was wiped out by a holding penalty, and another by a false start. Turner has been using parts of this offense since his days as an assistant at Southern California. "It's based on balance between run and pass," he said. "And if you're not doing both with pretty good efficiency, the other one suffers." He noted the Redskins often pass on 50 percent of the team's first-down plays, but Brad Johnson's completion percentage--usually in the 70s on those plays--was way down.

Now, the Redskins have to face a defense with players who can stop the run. "To get your yards [on the ground], it takes a lot of carries," Turner said.

For the Redskins, Sunday's game boils down to this: The coaches need to call the right plays. Johnson needs to complete his first-down passes, so the Redskins can hand the ball to Davis 25 or more times. The Redskins' pass rushers had better harass Plummer. And their defensive backs had better stop David Boston, or the Redskins will be going into birth records to find out if one of the officials is related to Jim Mora.

CAPTION: Redskins have questioned line judge Byron Boston's impartiality. His son, David, plays for the Cardinals.