Though they adamantly refused to admit it afterward, the Washington Redskins scored an enormously important victory here Saturday in their 14-13 playoff loss to the Buccaneers. They lost their battle to reach the Super Bowl this season, but they may have laid the groundwork for winning many an NFL war in future years.

It's easy to find the negative. A proud old-line NFL franchise that had held all 20 of its previous fourth-quarter postseason leads found a way to lose to a team that had never won a game in January in its history. The team with appearances in 10 world championship games or Super Bowls lost to a Tampa Bay team that would have to go 11-5 for the next 19 years to bring its all-time record to .500.

Yet beneath the final score, and the galling image of a field goal snap so comically hideous that it landed a yard in front of the holder, almost everything about the Redskins' final game was a plus. Besides, do you really want to play the Rams next week after the 49 points they laid on the Vikings Sunday? Is that the proper medicine for a Redskins defense whose confidence is finally growing? All in all, an appetite-whetting loss to the Bucs was a building block, not a stumbling block.

Perhaps no better sign exists than this: No Redskin agrees. All were frustrated or angry. None seemed satisfied with mere improvement.

The Redskins have not played like champions, or even potential champions, since Joe Gibbs retired as coach. They've won individual games and made a couple of stumbling runs at the playoffs. But until the last month, they've shown few signs of fundamental progress. Too often, especially in crisis moments, the Redskins were scatterbrained, undisciplined, immature, easily rattled or, most disturbing, simply not ready to play their best in key games. To call them inconsistent would be flattery.

Sometimes, teams seem to molt--cast off the old skin and grow a new one--as we watch. We may have seen that abrupt and almost inexplicable change over the last two weeks. The Redskins brought everything they possessed--intensity, skill, a passion for the kill--to a lopsided 27-13 victory over the Lions to begin the playoffs. Then, against the tough, nasty Bucs, they gave evidence that they may, someday soon, become a team that can count on itself for dependable, clutch play.

The rest of this winter should be delicious with draft-day possibilities. Trade those 12th and 24th overall picks to San Francisco for the third overall pick? Quite possible. Then, if the Redskins could add two defensive rookies even remotely akin to the Titans' Jevon Kearse--for example, linebacker LaVar Arrington and defensive end Courtney Brown, both of Penn State--then the Redskins could be a different, and better, team in a hurry.

Those of us who doubted that a Norv Turner team could avoid foolish penalties, control its emotions and respond to adversity with resilience will now gladly reevaluate. The jury is still out. A scruffy win in San Francisco to clinch the division, a solid tuneup against Miami, then two first-rate postseason games do not constitute complete proof. But they offer hope.

The only remnant of the Talk Is Cheap Redskins of recent years was Michael Westbrook's mid-week yakking. He called the Bucs' defensive backs "average." Those backs, of course, honed in on the quote. And on Westbrook, who had one catch, four yards. "I guess that's pretty 'average [for him],' " retorted Bucs safety John Lynch.

Usually, when the losers say they should have won, it's pure sour grapes. But, sometimes, even the other team agrees. Bucs Coach Tony Dungy conceded that his team won "ugly" and "lucky."

Two fourth-quarter fumbles illustrate the point. Both Washington's Brad Johnson and Tampa Bay's Shaun King were sacked. Each fumbled in his own backfield within the span of four plays early in the quarter with the Redskins ahead 13-7. Either fumble could have gone anywhere.

Johnson's fumble went straight to a Buc. King's fumble not only bounced to a teammate, but also to the best Bucs runner on the field--Warrick Dunn. Not only did the ball seek out the perfect Buc, but it also arrived right in stride so he could turn a five-yard, third-down loss into a 13-yard gain for a first down. Instead of attempting a 48-yard field goal, Tampa Bay drove for the winning touchdown.

"When we got that one, I thought it might be our day," said Dungy.

"We didn't execute. But we did get lucky," said Dunn, noting how many good breaks the Bucs have had this season. "Silly plays like that are made and we somehow capitalize."

Yes, they capitalized. But the Redskins might have, too. The Bucs blundered badly in the closing minutes, committing back-to-back penalties while attempting to get off a punt. The whole sequence handed the Redskins an extra 12 yards to start their final last-ditch drive. And that might have been just enough. The Bucs' defense and special teams didn't so much close the deal as they almost let it slip away.

Bucs fans scoff at that final aborted Redskins field goal try. From 52 yards? Not going to happen. But it might have. Place kickers are streaky, especially young ones. Brett Conway was as locked in his zone on Saturday as he was zoned out at midseason. He had drilled a 48-yarder into the wind earlier. With a breeze behind him, his 52-yarder with 77 seconds left would have been a bit easier. Normally, a kicker's odds in such a spot--on grass, on the road, a season on the line--might be one in three or even one in four. But, in kicking, confidence outweighs everything. And Conway had every reason to think he could make it.

Before we leave this Redskins season, we need to finish our business with Dan Turk. "Oh my God," said the 290-pound center after his dribbled snap, "this is something I have done all my life. It slipped. I don't know what happened."

Turk also noted that the Bucs nose guard had "gotten a jump" on him--i.e., timed the snap count. So, maybe Turk flinched. That's an explanation, but not an excuse.

At the NFL level, a field goal snap should be a formality. It's an act so precise, and manageable, that snappers and holders work on the tiniest details--such as how many times the snap should rotate so that the holder can get the laces on the ball to face away from the kicker. For a pro, it's a simple act calibrated down to inches.

A normal snap, if the holder lets the ball fly its full distance, would travel about 10 yards. Turk's snap--on a dry, balmy Florida night--didn't even go six yards in the air. How does a veteran, untouched by anybody, miss by 40 percent? Does a PGA golfer whiff on the 18th tee at the Masters? With an NBA playoff game on the line, do you see an airball on a free throw--by five feet? In the World Series, bases loaded and a full count, does the pitcher throw the ball up on the screen on the fly?

That's what Turk did. After 15 seasons, maybe he knew too well what was at stake. Wish him well. But say goodbye. Some things can be forgiven, but never forgotten.