The rain poured down on the Redskins like a cold bucket of water over their heads. It was a reality bath.

The Redskins are no longer unbeaten. But beyond that, it's hard to say exactly what they are. Just when you think they're wonderful, they do something lousy. And just when you think they're lousy, they do something wonderful. For long stretches against the Denver Broncos at Invesco Field at Mile High on Sunday, they looked like a viable winner -- until they looked like a sure loser. No sooner had you made your peace with a loss, than here they came again, storming back with more fourth-quarter heroics. The sum of all that was an agonizing 21-19 loss to the Broncos, in which, finally, they were just not quite good enough.

The irrational exuberance from their 3-0 start was washed away by that cold, hard rain. And maybe that's not such a bad thing. Now the Redskins can take a good hard look at themselves, free of hype and false hope. The bottom line is that the Redskins remain a perplexing team, one still in search of self-definition. And there's nothing like a tough loss on the road in foul weather to help them see just what's what.

Is there such a thing as an encouraging loss? If so, the Redskins experienced one. The rain drenched their jerseys into deeper colors, ran down their collars, and poured off their helmets. They were at a constant deficit, and trailed by 21-10 deep in the third quarter. But they never quit for a moment, outplayed the Broncos by an overwhelming statistical margin, and nearly forced overtime with a hair-raising fourth-quarter comeback. "They fought their guts out," Joe Gibbs said.

They did everything but win, and if any one of three frustrating plays had gone differently, they would have. But as Clinton Portis said afterward, "You cannot live life by what-ifs."

There was only one thing the Redskins failed to do -- score enough points. But it's the most crucial thing, the thing that gives them the most trouble. Until they solve their puzzling inability to put points on the board, they aren't going much of anywhere. Let's face it, a loss was inevitable for a team that had won its first three games by a total of just six points, and which went the first seven quarters of the season without scoring a touchdown.

What had to be particularly frustrating for the Redskins was that they once again failed to score enough points despite the fact that they racked up some huge numbers offensively. They outgained the Broncos by a whopping 447 yards to 257 yards. They amassed 28 first downs to the Broncos 11. Quarterback Mark Brunell completed 30 of his 53 passes for 322 yards, despite the miserable downpour. "Brunell was unbelievable throwing the football in those conditions," Broncos Coach Mike Shanahan said.

When Brunell drove the Redskins 94 yards in 13 plays, striking Chris Cooley with his 11-yard scoring pass with 1 minute 9 seconds to go, you had to wonder if there was something supernatural going on with this team. Another fourth-quarter nail-biter? But one more victory this way was just too improbable. On the two-point conversion attempt, David Patten was wide open at the back of the end zone -- but Broncos linebacker Ian Gold deflected the pass. Brunell clutched at his helmet in frustration. "We won three games like that," Patten said. "And sometimes those games go the other way."

The Redskins will not have a happy week contemplating the what-ifs. What if Mike Sellers hadn't gotten flagged for a false start, nullifying Nick Novak's 53-yard field goal just before halftime? What if they hadn't let the Broncos block Novak's 38-yard attempt with 7:34 left in the third quarter? What if the officials hadn't overruled Jake Plummer's apparent fumble in his own end zone for a safety with 9:25 to go in the third?

The Broncos were well aware of the nearness of the thing. "Not every victory you get is going to be pretty, but a win is a win," Plummer said. "It's a good win for us in the freezing cold. This was a tough team we played."

If the Redskins have clearly defined one thing about themselves, it's that they are indeed tough. This is a team that, if nothing else, is bitterly difficult to beat. In that respect, their 3-1 record is undeniably well earned. "We have a lot of fighters," Gibbs said. "It was a very hard-fought game. That's the best I can make of it -- and we came out on the short end."

When the Redskins analyze the loss, they will conclude that a handful of small mistakes did them in. They were just two or three plays away from being the only unbeaten team in the NFC. The trouble is, they were also four or five plays from being 0-4. Eventually, the Redskins will swing in one direction or the other, into a very good team, or a disappointing one. But so far they, and we, still don't know who they are.

Gregg Williams, the Redskins' assistant head coach-defense, talks with his defensive line. The Broncos were held to 257 yards and 11 first downs.