WASHINGTON -- Mark Rypien had seen this coming.
He looked at the Atlanta Falcons' blitz-crazy defense last week and saw opportunity for a breakthrough passing game. He looked at Atlanta's penchant for taking risks in the secondary and saw a quarterback's dream.
Yesterday, the Washington Redskins' oft-maligned quarterback lived that giddy dream.
In what seemed a frolic in the park for Rypien, and a funeral dirge to the black-clad Falcons, the unbeaten Redskins torched Atlanta 56-17 before a rain-splattered crowd of 52,641 at RFK Stadium.
Rypien threw for career-highs of six touchdown passes and 442 yards as Washington (10-0) opened a four-game lead in the NFC East with six to play.
"Coach Gibbs called us together last week and said the Falcons were going to do things to stop our running game, that it would be up to the passing game," Rypien said.
Whenever Joe Gibbs speaks this season, the Redskins listen. Attentively.
The Falcons (5-5) stacked their defensive line to stop the Redskins' running game, but success came at a hellish price. Although Atlanta held Washington to 3 yards per rush and sent Earnest Byner out of the game with a sprained knee in the first half, the Redskins still uncorked the big play. Their passing game had seven plays of 32 yards or more, four plays of 41 or more. Touchdowns rained from those leaden skies. Gary Clark caught three, Art Monk two, Terry Orr one.
Playing against man coverage all afternoon, Rypien took pitch and catch to new heights. His six touchdown passes tied the club record held by Slingin' Sammy Baugh (accomplished twice, in 1943 and '47). His average gain of 27.63 yards per completion broke Baugh's NFL record of 18.58, set in 1948. And Rypien easily could have surpassed Baugh's club record of 446 yards (1948), but elected to leave the game after his sixth TD toss with 10 minutes left.
"You don't go back in just to break records," he explained.
Rypien's passing was efficient to say the least. He needed just 31 passes and 16 completions to do all the damage. The Falcons, meanwhile, were remarkably cooperative and curiously stubborn. Even when it became apparent that coach Jerry Glanville's strategy of playing the Redskins' receivers man-to-man was a disaster, the Falcons clung to that strategy.
What made it most curious was that their fastest cornerback, Deion Sanders, was out with a deep thigh bruise. Their other starting cornerback, Tim McKyer, gave up passes covering 41, 61, 32 and 37 yards -- two for touchdowns -- before he was benched in the second half. Safeties Brian Jordan (Milford Mill) and Scott Case were committed to play the run.
That left much of the man-to-man burden on cornerbacks Brian Mitchell, a rookie from BYU, and Elbert Shelley, a fifth-year player from Arkansas State. Mitchell was strafed for a pair of TD passes and Shelley for one. Even the Redskins marveled at the Falcons' decision to play man coverage.
"If you had your rathers, you'd rather have a slow death," suggested Washington center Jeff Bostic. "[But] that's their decision . . . Not many people have been willing to press our receivers. After this game you can understand why."
Despite a variety of Atlanta blitzes, Rypien went his fifth straight game without a sack. "They use a lot of eight-man fronts," he said. "Fortunately, we could get things blocked up. I think we caught them by surprise, because the [pass rush] pressure wasn't there."
Rypien started slowly, missing early chances to beat Atlanta deep. After throwing a 9-yard touchdown pass to Orr in the first quarter, he overthrew Clark in the end zone early in the second.
"I'm learning as I go," Rypien said. "I'm learning to be patient. When you've got a team like this [Atlanta], you're licking your chops."
Rypien was toasting the Falcons before the half ended, though. He hit Clark for a scoring pass of 61 yards, ran untouched on a naked bootleg for a 4-yard touchdown, and added a 19-yard TD pass to Clark after defensive tackle Bobby Wilson caused and recovered a fumbled snap from Atlanta center Jamie Dukes. Within 78 seconds, the Redskins went from a 14-3 lead to 28-3, and the Falcons never recovered. Or adjusted on defense.
"Once it got to 28-3, they had to make big plays to get back in it," Rypien said. "They decided to stick with it [maxi-blitzes and man coverages]."
Rypien even felt moved to defend McKyer.
"Their thought was that McKyer is their best cover guy," he said. "With the whole field to defend, that's difficult for any cornerback to do. He was put in a difficult position and we were able to make some plays."
With McKyer watching from the bench in the second half, Rypien threw two touchdown passes to Monk (19 and 64 yards) and another to Clark (82). Linebacker Andre Collins finished off the rout with a 15-yard touchdown interception against the Falcons' Billy Joe Tolliver, starting in place of injured Chris Miller.
Clark, who gained 203 yards on his four catches, saw in the end what Rypien had seen from the beginning.
"Rypien had an incredible day," Clark said. "He's having an All-Pro year, and he's silencing his critics."