For their most important game of the season, the Washington Redskins put the ball in the willing hands of running back Stephen Davis yesterday. And Davis delivered, rushing for 189 yards to spur a 28-3 victory over the Arizona Cardinals and breathe new life into his team's playoff hopes.

In completing a season sweep of the Cardinals, the Redskins put together their most complete game of the season in front of 75,851 at FedEx Field, with the offense compiling 406 total yards and the defense forcing four turnovers and holding an opponent without a touchdown for the first time this year.

With the victory, the Redskins (8-5) preserved their one-game lead in the race for the NFC East title. Dallas and the New York Giants, who also won yesterday, are tied for second at 7-6. If the Redskins finished the season tied with Dallas, they would lose the division title because of the Cowboys' two victories over Washington this season. That would leave the Redskins, whose difficult remaining schedule includes road games against Indianapolis and San Francisco and a home matchup with Miami, to hope for a wild-card spot.

Afterward, the players took obvious satisfaction in performing their best in a game they had to win in order to keep their playoff hopes alive.

"If you want to see the view from the top, you've got to scale the mountain," said quarterback Brad Johnson, who completed 17 of 31 passes for 191 yards, including two touchdowns and two interceptions. "Today, we took one more step closer."

In relying so heavily on the running game, the Redskins accomplished two important objectives. They wore down the most reliable feature of the Cardinals' game, their defense. And they denied Arizona's most dangerous weapon--quarterback Jake Plummer--by controlling the ball for 38 minutes 46 seconds. When Plummer had a chance to make plays, he generally missed his mark, completing 15 of 32 passes for 147 yards with three interceptions. Redskins rookie cornerback Champ Bailey prevented a touchdown in the second quarter by picking off Plummer's pass in the end zone. And veteran cornerback Darrell Green got two standing ovations for a fourth-quarter interception that killed Arizona's last hopes. It was the 50th regular season interception of Green's 17-year career.

"It was one of my goals, and I am thrilled to reach it," Green said.

There were mistakes, to be sure. The Redskins committed 12 penalties one week after being called for 14 in a loss to Detroit. Johnson's second interception, on third and goal at the Arizona 3, was an ill-advised throw. And the special teams unit yielded a 68-yard kickoff return.

But in the end, there was far more to celebrate than disparage--particularly on defense. The Redskins held Arizona to 173 yards, including just 53 rushing, and sacked Plummer five times. The unit also allowed the Cardinals to convert only 4 of 13 third downs.

Meanwhile, the Redskins offense sustained its drives by converting 12 of 19 third downs. Washington ran the ball on first down to open 11 of its 12 possessions, with Davis, more often than not, breaking off hefty chunks of yardage.

"We were wearing 'em down," guard Tre Johnson said. "It was like boxing almost--throwing combos on 'em. You could just tell they wanted to shut it down in the fourth quarter."

Michael Westbrook had four receptions, including a 25-yarder for a touchdown. Veteran Irving Fryar caught Johnson's other touchdown throw, a seven-yard pass that made it 14-3. It was Fryar's first scoring catch of the season.

But it was Davis's production on the ground that made the offense click. After carrying the ball only three times in the second half against the Lions, Davis was eager to run the ball.

"Today I saw a fire in his eyes that was just unbelievable," said fullback Larry Centers, who had four receptions for 38 yards and rushed for another 10. "The guy wanted it badly."

Davis followed his favorite blocker, Johnson, on the Redskins' first offensive play and carried 36 more times--his 37 carries were third-most in franchise history--before being pulled late in the game for Skip Hicks, who ran 11 yards for the final touchdown.

Davis started the Redskins' scoring by bolting 50 yards to the end zone with the entire field open before him. Fullback Mike Sellers made the block that sprung him. The Cardinals blitzed on the play and paid dearly for it. Said Brad Johnson: "I think that play right there kept them from blitzing us all day long."

The Redskins defense held the Cardinals to three plays and out on their first two possessions, and Plummer never seemed to find his rhythm. He did damage on the run only once in the third series, scrambling out of the pocket and rolling right to hurl a 43-yard completion to wide receiver David Boston. Seven plays later, place kicker Chris Jacke made a 31-yard field goal to give his team its only points of the game.

While Johnson missed some throws, he improvised successfully on others. He connected with Albert Connell with a 28-yarder on a slant to advance the Redskins' second touchdown drive, capped by the seven-yard throw to Fryar.

Even some bad breaks eventually benefited the Redskins. In the second quarter, the Cardinals scored another field goal on the drive that followed Mario Bates's 68-yard kickoff return. But a penalty against defensive end Marco Coleman negated the play and gave Arizona an automatic first down on the Redskins 9. Plummer's next pass--to Rob Moore--was intercepted by Bailey in the end zone.

In the locker room afterward, several Redskins credited a players-only meeting Saturday night with the team's newfound intensity. The meeting was called by Coleman and Tre Johnson, who wanted to pass along some of what owner Daniel M. Snyder told them in private meetings earlier in the week.

"We wanted everybody to go to sleep knowing what's at stake," Tre Johnson said. "Don't come out there and wait for somebody else to make the play or wait for some miracle to happen. . . . Santa Claus is not going to bring us a playoff. We have to go out there and snatch it. We have to put the mask on and go rock. I think everybody felt that way, and it showed."