The Washington Redskins are back in the playoffs because they showed the best on-field leadership, talent and heart of the past six seasons. To advance in the playoffs, you must be led by your offensive line. The ability to run the ball demoralizes an opponent and controls the clock.

Washington's offensive line has developed into an outstanding unit, combining youth and enthusiasm with age and experience. Left tackle Andy Heck is the grit, left guard Keith Sims the road grader, center Cory Raymer the glue, right guard Tre Johnson the big banger, right tackle Jon Jansen the prize bull and guard Brad Badger the sixth man. The Redskins also have three blue-collar tight ends in Stephen Alexander, James Jenkins and Mike Sellers.

Old-timers in the nation's capital are whispering about the return of the Hogs. This year's unit has been blessed with good health and is a big reason that Stephen Davis is the most improved running back in the league.

Davis led the NFC in rushing and competed for the league title until a sprained ankle sidelined him for the final two regular season games. He earned his first trip to the Pro Bowl by slamming between the tackles for more yards than any other running back in franchise history.

To make matters worse for opposing defensive coordinators, the Redskins also have speedy Skip Hicks and the big-play twins--Larry Centers and Brian Mitchell.

No running game is complete without great efforts by the wide receivers. Michael Westbrook, Albert Connell, Irving Fryar and James Thrash blocked like madmen this season. The benchmark for teamwork is unselfishness, and no unit on this team has displayed more than the wide receivers.

As much as I love pounding the football, I understand that in the NFL you run the ball only when you also can throw it. One of the things that makes this season's team special is its ability to punish teams with the deep pass if they attempt to stop the run by loading up in the box (that's football slang for placing the strong safety closer to the line of scrimmage).

As for quarterback Brad Johnson, he was just what this offense needed to advance to the next level. His experience in the huddle, film study and performance on the practice field were among the reasons this team passed for more than 4,000 yards.

It pains me to admit this because I've gotten tired of hearing Tony McGee, Monte Coleman, Sam Huff, Brig Owens and Pat Fischer say it so many times over the year, but they're right: You win championships with defense.

I couldn't agree with them more. Earlier in the season, it was hit or miss with the Redskins' defense. But in the most important month of the regular season--December--this defense started to put it together. Youth is very hard to overcome on defense because so much of what you do is based on reading keys and reacting to schemes in less time than it takes to blink. Meanwhile, some 300-pound lineman is trying to make you the star of his highlight film.

The defense's improvement begins with the play of the defensive ends. Marco Coleman, Anthony Cook, Kenard Lang and Ndukwe Kalu have transformed the position from an ugly duckling to a super model.

Last Sunday against Miami, defensive tackles Dana Stubblefield and Dan Wilkinson showed quickness and power. Now, they must set the tone for this unit to be great. With the emergence of Doug Brown and Marc Boutte, this defensive line is also deep.

The pups at linebacker now have all their teeth. The only way you grow up in the NFL is to play. Greg Jones, Derek Smith and Shawn Barber have survived on-the-job training and are now making big plays. It doesn't matter how tough you are if you can't find the football. I believe this unit, combined with veterans Kurt Gouveia and James Francis, is ready to compete.

The secondary is led by future Hall of Famer Darrell Green. I played with Darrell, and that tells you how old he is. I think he had fun leading this team back to the playoffs.

For years, few teams even bothered to challenge him. Now with his clone, Champ Bailey, holding down the other side, teams have tried to check Darrell's wheels. And just like in the old times, Darrell is getting his hands back on the ball. The great ones play their best when the lights are bright and they are in man-to-man coverage.

One of the goals of the front office was to improve the safety positions. They've done that with Leomont Evans, Matt Stevens and Sam Shade, who have one thing in common with past safeties in Washington: They love contact. Shade has made the adjustment to a new system, while leading the Redskins in tackles. Statistics aren't kind to this unit, but the timing of its development doesn't show up in the numbers.

At the moment, the best part of the team is special teams. From the Wild Bunch in the early Joe Gibbs years to three Super Bowl victories, the one thing you could always count on was Washington leading the league in special teams play. In the playoffs, one play can turn around a game. Field position is extremely important.

I can promise you the spirit of Wonsley, Wysocki and Hickman will be pulling for Curtis Buckley, Eddie Mason and Dan Turk. Despite some early problems, Coach LeCharls McDaniel finally has a group that understands the responsibility that goes with wearing the burgundy and gold.

Then there is the home crowd. In 1972, Ken Houston stopped Walt Garrison at the goal line. In 1982, Darryl Grant scored a game-changing touchdown against Dallas. In 1983, Mark Moseley kicked a killer field goal against the 49ers. In 1987, Green and Coleman made plays on the goal line to save a victory over the Vikings. And in 1991, the Redskins overwhelmed both Atlanta and Detroit. A roaring sellout stadium was a factor in all of those games, and should be again this afternoon.

The Analyst: Former Redskin Rick Walker

Rick "Doc" Walker played nine seasons as a tight end in the NFL, including six with the Washington Redskins when he was an original member of the Hogs. Before that, he was voted lineman of the year at UCLA in 1977 and was an Associated Press all-American selection.

He's currently a color analyst for the NFL on the CBS radio network and does ACC football games for Jefferson-Pilot Sports. He also hosts a daily talk show on WTEM-980 with John Thompson and makes regular appearances on a variety of television shows.

He's on the board of directors of Providence Health Foundation and is on the pastoral committee at Heritage Fellowship United Church of Christ. He has been an event chairman for MDA, Big Brothers, UMCA and the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation.

He has been listed in Selling Power magazine as one of the region's top motivational speakers.

Sept. 19: Redskins 50, Giants 21Nov. 21: Redskins 23, Giants 13Dec. 26: Barber's strip The season began with a calamity, as the Redskins squandered a 21-point, fourth-quarter lead to lose to the Cowboys in overtime at home. A year ago, a disappointing opener led to an 0-7 start for the Redskins, and they could have unraveled again. But they didn't.

Another crossroads. The Redskins had lost their previous two games to the Bills and Eagles to drop from 5-2 to 5-4, and the season seemed to be slipping away. But this win put the Redskins on their way to a 5-2 finish.

The Redskins had clinched a playoff berth earlier in the day, but an 8-8 season still was possible as the 49ers moved into position for a potential game-winning field goal late in regulation. Linebacker Shawn Barber, however, caused a fumble by rookie running back Terry Jackson. The Redskins recovered and won in overtime to clinch the NFC East title. Two days later owner Daniel M. Snyder and Coach Norv Turner said Turner would return next season.