WASHINGTON -- "It was a kind of ugly pass," Martin Mayhew said. "I didn't really like it, but I'll take it."
The Washington Redskins' young cornerback was talking about the interception, his seventh of a busy, busy season, as the Redskins had an easy time with Buffalo, 29-14.
Coach Joe Gibbs could have looked at his victory the same way, but he chose not to. His face and voice hardened as it was suggested that the Bills, with their supremacy in their conference secure, hadn't taken the game seriously.
"People will say that," Gibbs said, "and I think that's a shame. Our guys played hard."
That was how his team would have to play at Philadelphia this weekend, Gibbs had just explained. "It will take one of our greatest efforts," Gibbs said. "If we don't play smart, everybody can beat us. There are teams that can play not up to their potential and still win, but we are not one of them."
The Redskins face such an under-achieving team in the wild-card game on the Veterans Stadium carpet. The Eagles mauled the Redskins on Nov. 12, injuring nine of them and adding insult with their customary bad-mouthing turned up a couple of notches.
The Skins played smart yesterday, and smoothly, except for a few more scary passes by Mark Rypien, one of them intercepted. Buffalo fumbled the ball away twice and third-string quarterback Gale Gilbert, playing the second half, threw two interceptions.
But he also threw for two touchdowns and the first cut the Skins' lead to 9-7. So they stood in jeopardy of losing to a team that wasn't trying. "You'd have to ask them if they played hard," Gibbs said.
That didn't help. "We would have liked to win the game," Bills coach Marv Levy said serenely. "The effort was fine; we just turned the ball over."
Buffalo's nonpareil defensive end, Bruce Smith, was "slightly disappointed" to be taken out of the game when three more sacks would have tied Mark Gastineau's record 22 for a season. "I was having fun out there," Smith said. He wasn't having any sacks.
Mayhew had fun out there. Starting his 23rd consecutive game at the left corner, Mayhew has earned a full-time job at age 25. But a less controlled young man could have developed a full-time paranoia. They pick on him.
All-Pro Darrell Green, at the right corner, must deal with the Jerry Rices and Anthony Carters and Andre Reeds, but Mayhew gets thrown at.
And, like all cornerbacks in their moving goldfish bowl, Mayhew has been beaten and embarrassed. And he has grown into the job. "I expected them [the Bills] to throw at me," he said. "It's been that way all year."
Near the end of the third quarter yesterday, with the Skins ahead 12-7, and the Bills third-and-18 on their 30, Gilbert went for the long ball. He sent rookie Al Edwards, a 100-meter man, down the right side and heaved the ball on a high parabola.
"I thought about trying to intercept," Mayhew said. "I hadn't had one for a while." The young Mayhew -- say six weeks ago -- might have tried. But an interception, with no return, would have left the Redskins much deeper in their own ground than the ensuing punt would.
Mayhew nodded, and smiled. His interception in the fourth quarter was a natural. "I was covering my man and it came to me," Mayhew said. "I think maybe it was for somebody else."
Asked what he expects in Philadelphia, Mayhew said: "They'll throw some my way. Respect? I guess so, but anyway I think they'll be a little more careful now."
Defensive tackle Tracy Rocker had fun out there too, playing for the first time after eight weeks on injured reserve (more reserved than injured). He had two of Washington's three sacks, and exulted after the first one like a 24-year-old.
"Not me," he said. "That was Darrell, grabbin' me. I didn't know if the ball was loose, or what. Man, I needed a good game."
The need was overwhelming at one point. "Driving to the stadium I had this anxiety," Rocker said. "I started breathing so hard. I wondered if I was on the right road. I hadn't been this way in a long time." Injured reserve players need not attend the games.
"Then when I got here, I was asking myself, 'How do I dress? Am I doing this right?'
"I wanted to be a Redskin."
Rypien, who has handled criticism of his quarterbacking until now, chafed at suggestions that it's still, as the coaches put it, "inconsistent." He was 16-for-26 for one touchdown (Stephen Hobbs' first as a pro) and one ("those things happen") interception.
"How am I playing?" he said. "How do you gauge it? We're winning. The last one [the 35-28 defeat at Indianapolis] was a good game without that one pass.
"Anyway, it's what you all [the press] say. If you say I played like a dog, that's it."