Playing hurt is probably the most honorable thing a man can do in professional football. It is the game's unofficial badge of honor, the trait players and coaches value most. Playing great while diminished is the stuff old pros romanticize for 25 years. In a playoff game the Washington Redskins had zero chance to lose, Stephen Davis was still the hero. He played hurt. More than that, he played injured. Even more than that, he played spectacularly while injured.

All week long Davis knew he wanted to play, he knew he would try to play, but he also had no idea how effectively he could play. He didn't know whether he could change direction on his severely sprained left ankle, or whether that ankle could sustain a hard blow, or whether he could get up and walk to the huddle.

Davis didn't get by; he played like a dream. He carried the ball 15 times, gained 119 yards and ran for two touchdowns. After gaining six measly yards on his first five carries, Davis broke one for 58 yards. Early in the second, he broke another long one, this one for 32 yards. That's 90 yards on two carries, stuff totally healthy backs can go a career without doing. Fantasy, pure fantasy. Already beloved for the way he conducts himself, Davis endeared himself to his teammates even more yesterday.

Only after the game, when pressed on the issue, did Davis let his guard down for a moment. "It did really hurt," he said. "I mean, really hurt. But there was no way I wasn't going to play. No way."

Toughness may be a cliche in football, but it also is probably the single most important ingredient in a winning team.

And if a team is really lucky, its star players are the toughest of all, the ones who will take a painkiller and take a risk. Sam Huff, the Hall of Fame linebacker who is on anybody's short list of all-time tough guys, said afterward, "A lot of guys may think they're stars. But you know what goes through a real star's mind? 'This team needs me.' The team knows it and he knows it. And when you play injured, they really rally around you, they protect you. . . . "

The public doesn't know who really is hurt during the week. But players know who is coming to meetings with electrodes attached to their bodies. Players know who is in the training room three hours after practice trying to strengthen a knee enough to play on Sunday. The players know Stephen Davis is going to be a free agent after this season, meaning a big fat contract awaits if he stays healthy. A severe ankle injury has reduced many a bright career and the riches that figured to come with it. "A running back injuring any part of his leg is like a quarterback injuring his arm," teammate Larry Centers said.

Davis's performance was the type that pays homage to the men such as Walter Payton, and more recently, Emmitt Smith. My favorite NFL game of the last 10 years involved Smith. It was at Giants Stadium, Jan. 2, 1994, with a division title and home-field advantage on the line. Smith's shoulder had been sprained and partially separated before halftime, and in the second half he dragged it as if his entire arm was out of its socket. The trainers harnessed Smith's arm as much as they could, and all he did was rush for 168 yards and carry the Cowboys to an overtime victory. With Smith's arm dangling, the Cowboys called his number nine of the final 12 plays, as if there was nobody else on the team. In real life, this is crazy. In the culture of the NFL, it's heroic. And in that context, it was one of the most astonishing performances I've ever seen.

Davis seems to be made of similar stuff. "When I saw him at practice on Wednesday, I really didn't think he was going to go," Brad Johnson said. "He was going about half-speed and we were all kind of wondering what was going to happen." As of Wednesday night, there was serious concern among the club's top officials that Davis wouldn't play.

Well, it's a good thing he did, because with him running behind a line that loves to plow straight ahead through people, the Redskins can play with anybody. Without him, they've got zero chance to go through the Buccaneers next Saturday in Tampa. You think Norv Turner doesn't know where this team's bread is buttered? Turner said he rewarded Davis with one of the game balls, but said, "He can't collect it unless he plays against Tampa."

As guard Keith Sims said afterward, "He's a warrior. He's the absolute MVP of our team. Brad is tremendous, but [Davis] puts it all together. When he's in the game, we can do just about anything."

Knowing that, Davis said, "I'll be ready." This is complicated because he has a new leg injury, a sprained knee suffered when a 277-pound Detroit lineman landed on Davis and twisted his right knee at the end of a routine one-yard run.

"I felt a tingle, but I knew I wasn't going to lay on the ground," he said. "I had to get up and jog off the field. But when I got to the sideline, it was really hurting."

Surely, Davis would have played again if necessary. Fortunately for the Redskins, they didn't need him. The Lions have nothing resembling a playoff team. Their playoff players are all injured, or in the case of Barry Sanders, simply absent. Detroit's starting running back, Cory Schlesinger, is a fullback who is the No. 6 option at running back. Quarterback Charlie Batch hurt his thumb again last week on the helmet of a lineman named Eric Beverly. A backup center, Beverly didn't play against the Redskins either. Batch was 6-2 as a healthy starter.

Speaking of linemen, Detroit started its eighth different offensive line combination yesterday. Terry Fair, the Lions' Pro Bowl-caliber return man, was injured a month ago when he fell down a flight of stairs. The Lions managed to replace him with former Super Bowl MVP Desmond Howard, but he injured his neck last week and was in street clothes on the sideline. Detroit's starting left cornerback, Bryant Westbrook, played with both hamstrings injured.

Men who should have been third on the depth chart became regulars, sometimes starters.

The Redskins don't have many injured parties to worry about, but losing Andy Heck and having Davis banged up doesn't bode well with the No. 1 defense in the NFC--Tampa Bay's--on deck. "They did a great job of taping me and re-taping me," Davis said. "Everybody tried to help me get ready for this. I'm going to try to do everything I can for these guys."