PITTSBURG — PITTSBURGH -- Mark Rypien, the quarterback who's just supposed to drive the car, is now threatening to set speed records.
"We're on a dream ride. I feel like I'm along for the ride here with them," coach Joe Gibbs said yesterday after the Washington Redskins became the first team this year to qualify for the playoffs and the ninth team in NFL history to start off 11-0 by routing the Pittsburgh Steelers, 41-14, at Three Rivers Stadium.
They did it as Rypien again burned a team that dared him to throw by passing for 325 yards and two touchdowns.
"Some people didn't believe Ryp was the kind of quarterback that he is," running back Earnest Byner said. "They figured that if they could stop the run, they might have our number. Ryp really came in this year with a belief in himself. He has a lot more confidence. He's different. It's a different Ryp."
Rypien, who passed for 442 yards last week when the Atlanta Falcons blitzed him, burned a Steelers defense that gambled on stopping the league's top-rated rushing game.
The Redskins are the first team since the 1985 Bears to clinch a playoff spot after 11 games, and they can clinch their first NFC East title since 1987 by beating the Dallas Cowboys on Sunday.
They've also got a two-game lead on the New Orleans Saints, who were upset by the San Diego Chargers yesterday, and the Bears in the battle for home-field advantage in the NFC title game.
Then there's the ultimate goal, the one they don't want to admit is a goal -- 19-0.
"I'm not really thinking about that at all," Gibbs said. "We want a Super Bowl. We don't want anything else. If something else comes with that, great. That's not the focus. The focus is to win a division and get to the Super Bowl."
Gibbs can look at history to justify his concern. Only two of th previous eight teams that started 11-0 won a title, and one of them (the 1969 Los Angeles Rams) never won a 12th game.
But if Rypien keeps playing the way he is now, the Redskin have a shot at it. He completed 21 of 28 passes against the Steelers. Art Monk caught eight for 130 yards and a touchdown.
Rypien was so erratic in the past that Redskins officials talke about building the perfect car and then simply asking him to drive it. After he failed to get a single point in the second half of a playoff game in San Francisco in January, despite the Redskins's getting inside the 49ers' 20 three times, there were doubts he could win a title.
But now he's handling everything opposing teams are throwing at him. The Steelers set out to stop the running game, and they held Byner, who was playing with a sore knee, to 5 yards in nine carries in the first half, although Ricky Ervins came in to get 84 yards in 23 carries.
Rypien, though, can make a team pay a price for putting too much emphasis on stopping the Redskins' run.
For example, on the third play of the game, a first down at the Washington 36, Gibbs flashed in a running play. But when Rypien saw the Steelers playing run with seven players bunched at the line of scrimmage, he audibled to a pass.
"All you have to do is read the safety," he said. "If he drifts toward Gary [Clark], you've got Art, which we ended up doing. If he drifts toward Art, hopefully, we've got Gary."
Monk was left running free down the middle of the field and caught a 63-yard pass before he was tackled at the Steelers' 1. Gerald Riggs bulled it over and the Redskins were ahead, 7-0.
By midway in the third quarter, it was 27-0 as the Redskins' savvy defense gave young Neil O'Donnell a lesson or two while sacking him five times even though their best sacker, Charles Mann, sat out the game with a knee injury.
But O'Donnell came back to get the Steelers two touchdowns to cut the deficit to 27-14 midway in the fourth period, and they still had a chance to pull it out.
But Rypien then hit Clark with a 49-yard scoring pass to put i out of reach.
"That was probably the final nail in the coffin right there," Rypien said. "They got frustrated and came after us a little bit and Gary ran a corner route and we hit it."
The problem with coming after Rypien is that the Redskins' offensive line won't budge. It has gone six games and three quarters -- 27 quarters -- without allowing a sack. The linemen have allowed only four sacks all year and have a shot at breaking the record of seven set by the Miami Dolphins in 1988.
With that line added to the receiving corps of The Posse, the Redskins have built quite a car for him to drive.
"I think Ryp is hot," Gibbs said. "He's got a lot of confidence, and the line is giving him great protection. I think he feels like he's got a lot of things going on around him."
Monk made an acrobatic catch in the back of the end zone for an 11-yard touchdown when he leaped up and just managed to get his second foot down. Clark made a diving, one-handed catch in the third period for a 37-yard gain that set up Riggs' second touchdown run.