John Unitas once said that the quarterback who reminded him most of himself was Dan Marino. Unitas made the observation when Marino was in his prime.

In the twilight of his career yesterday at FedEx Field, Marino in one half of play still looked eerily similar to the Baltimore Colts legend. Like Unitas, the Miami Dolphins quarterback was close to the end of his 17th season with the same team and speculation included the possibility that his 18th season, if he wants one, could be in some other uniform, just as Unitas finished with a season with the San Diego Chargers.

"You never know when your last game's going to be," the 38-year-old Marino said as reporters crowded around him after Washington's 21-10 victory. "Who knows what the future's going to hold?"

Marino--like Unitas, Pittsburgh-born, with the middle name of Constantine and extraordinarily popular among home fans--was limited yesterday by age to throwing short passes, as an older Unitas had been. And the talk, then and now, was about an aging great with a bad back and a bad arm, although Marino still tantalized by displaying zip on some of those short passes.

Marino's principal assets, as were the fading Unitas's, were in his character; he was canny and he was a warrior who would in no way give up easily. Marino threw 24 times and completed 11 for 118 yards--an average of 10.7 yards per completion. He had one interception. Three of his passes were tipped, including one batted right back to him. On a third and 10, he threw directly into the hands of the Redskins' Tim Denton, only Denton dropped what should have been another interception.

"We're shooting ourselves in the foot as far as being consistent enough to win ballgames," an unsmiling Marino said. "We've got to find a way to be successful. We're in the playoffs, so we have a shot. That's a positive for us, something to look forward to."

Dolphins owner Wayne Huizenga flew Marino's family--his wife, Claire, and their five children--to Washington for the game. That gesture added to the conjecture that yesterday might have been Marino's last regular season game with the team. But Marino cautioned not to read anything into the presence of his family.

"They planned it a while back," Marino said. "I'm just happy they had a chance to come up."

The Dolphins knew before game time that they had found their way into the playoffs despite their trail of losses since Marino's return from a nerve injury. Now they will have scant time to find a solution before journeying to Seattle for their game Sunday. "I don't think it's too late to get it together," said Dolphins Coach Jimmy Johnson, who shares little more in common with Marino than their lustrous Florida tans.

If Johnson decides not to return next season, Marino's life as a Dolphin could be extended--if a Johnson successor would want Marino. But if Johnson stays, Marino seems certain to hit the road--moving to another team or into retirement. Neither was revealing his feelings yesterday.

As if he had a choice given popular demand in South Florida, Johnson said that Marino would be his starting quarterback next week. But only the most wildly optimistic Dolphins fans believe that Marino will be able to achieve his often-stated main ambition in football, to win a Super Bowl--"I want that ring."

"We need to find the consistency," Marino said. "We need to win the game."

Against the Redskins, Marino went on, "We got unlucky a couple times early when we stopped ourselves"--"unlucky" was how he characterized a lost fumble and a tipped pass that was intercepted in the Dolphins' first two offensive series.

"If we can take charge of that," said Marino, meaning the mistakes, "we can beat anybody."

Teammates and opponents wished him well; from Marino back to the days of Unitas and to others before that, the feeling remains the same when a great one's days are numbered.

"I'm always going to think that Dan is going to play for us," said his backup, Damon Huard. "As his teammate, I watch the way he prepares for every game. I see the pain that he goes through trying to fight through injuries. I see him as nothing less than a winner."

And it was obvious that the Redskins, even as they extended his misery, respected Marino.

As Mark McMillian raced up field with his interception, Marino ran toward the Redskins' sideline to be in position to tackle him. McMillian was brought down before he got to Marino, but Marino's momentum carried him into a knot of Redskins reserves standing on the sideline. Guard Rod Milstead gave him an affectionate pat on the back and then kept watching him. Head bent, Marino began walking, then jogged slowly the rest of the long, empty way across the field to the Dolphins' bench.