Washington Redskins running back Stephen Davis vowed yesterday that he would return to the lineup for Saturday's NFC first-round playoff game against the Detroit Lions at FedEx Field. The NFC's leading rusher was sidelined for the final two games of the regular season by a sprained left ankle.

Wide receiver Albert Connell also said he would play Saturday after missing Sunday's 21-10 victory over Miami because of an ailing left shoulder.

Davis did some running on the practice field at Redskin Park yesterday and said his ankle had improved since he last tested it on Friday. Davis said he's hopeful of being able to practice on Wednesday following a day off for Redskins players today. Davis has not practiced or played in a game since hurting his ankle in the first half of the Redskins' loss at Indianapolis on Dec. 19.

"It's getting better," Davis said. "It's a whole lot better than it was Friday. I'm very confident [about playing Saturday]. It's the playoffs. I'll be out there."

Coach Norv Turner said he expects Davis to play Saturday, and hopes the tailback is able to practice at or near full speed Wednesday and Thursday to knock the rust off his game.

"He moved around real well" yesterday, Turner said. "Stephen is a young player. The key is him being able to practice. He hasn't played in three weeks. If he gets in two good days of practice, I think he should be able to play the whole game."

Skip Hicks started the final two games of the regular season and totaled 101 rushing yards. Davis, even with his injury, set a team season record with 1,405 rushing yards and became the first Redskins runner to lead the conference in rushing since Larry Brown in 1972.

"I figured if I could have played the last two games, I would have led the league," said Davis, who finished 148 yards behind Colts rookie Edgerrin James for the NFL rushing title.

The Redskins expect to have the league's second-ranked offense back intact for their first playoff game since January 1993 and first home playoff game since a 41-10 victory over the Lions in January 1992 in the NFC championship game. Connell has had a sore shoulder for weeks and joined Davis on the inactive list Sunday, but said yesterday he could have played if the Redskins hadn't already clinched the NFC East title.

"I'm definitely playing" Saturday, Connell said. "I felt okay. I could have played in this game if I had needed to. I think it's about 90 percent now. Hopefully by the end of the week, I'll be ready to go full out."

Turner said of Connell's status for Saturday's game: "I would expect him to be 100 percent."

Quarterback Brad Johnson, who started all 16 regular season games, was rested by Turner during the second half Sunday and said he could feel the difference yesterday.

"Not playing, that was the first time I really slept good in 16 weeks," Johnson said. "With us playing on a Saturday this week, that really helped."

The Redskins have history on their side. The Lions lost their final four games following a 33-17 win over the Redskins at Detroit on Dec. 5 to drop their record to 8-8. No .500 team ever has won an NFL playoff game. And the Lions have an 0-19 all-time record in Washington, including 0-2 in the postseason.

But the Redskins were taking a cautious approach yesterday.

"You can't take anybody lightly once you get in the playoffs, no matter what their record is," veteran running back and kick returner Brian Mitchell said. "Everybody is 0-0 now."

Said defensive end Marco Coleman: "It's all out the window. They're not 8-8 anymore. Everybody is the same. The regular season is over. The regular season is to jockey to get to this point. Now we have to take advantage of the opportunity we have."

As the Redskins look at the NFC playoff bracket, they are eager about their chances. A win over the Lions would be followed by a Jan. 15 game at Tampa Bay in the conference semifinals, one step short of the NFC title game.

"We know what it takes," Connell said. "We're ready for it. That's all the guys are talking about. If we play at the level we know we can play at, we'll be playing this entire month."

Still, overconfidence should not be a problem for the Redskins. In the first meeting this season, the Redskins committed 14 penalties, had four turnovers and yielded five sacks while being overwhelmed by the Silverdome noise and Detroit's hard-charging defensive front.

"What hurt us last time was penalties," Johnson said. "Part of it was bad play on our part. Part of it was their crowd noise. I don't think there are going to be any happy faces around here until after the game. We'll be ready to go. I think that [first game] could help us."

Davis said: "They put it to us. We've got to go out and do the things we've been doing the last couple weeks, and hopefully we'll get on a roll. If we go out and execute the offense the way we're capable of doing, on grass [and] in front of our fans, we should be all right."

Only seven of the Redskins' 22 starters on offense and defense--Johnson, fullback Larry Centers, tackle Andy Heck, guard Keith Sims, Coleman, defensive tackle Dana Stubblefield and cornerback Darrell Green--have playoff experience. Only four players on the roster--Green, Mitchell, tight end James Jenkins and linebacker Kurt Gouveia--have had playoff experience with the Redskins. Green played down that factor yesterday.

"If you lose, you needed playoff experience," Green said. "If you win, it didn't matter."

Said Coleman: "Losing a playoff game is the most hollow and empty feeling you can have, and losing at home is even worse. You don't even want to watch the Super Bowl."