HERNDON, Va. -- Going into the final weekend of the NFL's regular season, the teams expected to oppose each other in Super Bowl XXVI share a problem that is the envy of every other club.
The Buffalo Bills (13-2) and the Washington Redskins (14-1) have won their division titles and assured themselves of home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. As a result, neither will have anything to gain Sunday when Buffalo plays host to the Detroit TC Lions and the Redskins face the Philadelphia Eagles.
So the problem is one of deciding between momentum and rest; intensity and recuperation, the individual and the group in that rarest of NFL events, a game each team can afford to lose.
Buffalo coach Marv Levy, who took the same tack in a meaningless game last year, has said he will diminish the workload of quarterback Jim Kelly and running back Thurman Thomas against the Lions for the greater battles yet to come. Those who would argue against him may remember that Buffalo missed a Super Bowl championship by one point a year ago.
But the Eagles can expect no R&R treatment from Redskins coach Joe Gibbs, who intends to deploy his troops in the game the same as in every contest that preceded it this year.
"We're going to Philadelphia with the idea of playing hard and winning the football game," said Gibbs. "I just think it's important to keep the momentum going."
Maybe so, but that stance will seem an unnecessary gamble to anyone aware of the Eagles' quarterback-breaking, top-ranked defense, or the memory of the last time these division rivals played at Veterans Stadium.
In the infamous "body bag" game of Nov. 12, 1990, the Eagles soared to a 28-14 victory in which their defense knocked two quarterbacks and seven other Redskins out of commission with injuries.
While the Eagles may be out of playoff contention, it is probable that their defense has never been more menacing or tougher than it is right now. Led by Reggie White, Clyde Simmons and Jerome Brown, the Pro Bowl starters who man the defensive line, the Eagles lead the league in sacks (52) and have any number of hitters at linebacker and in the secondary who take great delight in introducing rivals to the tooth-loosening tackle.
Even so, Gibbs will risk starting quarterback Mark Rypien, the NFL passing leader, along with every other Redskin who might better take time to heal aches and bruises. That includes running back Earnest Byner, defensive end Charles Mann and the pass-catching troika otherwise known as The Posse.
"I know I run the risk of being criticized," Gibbs said this week. "But if we went the other way and then didn't play well in the playoffs, I'd be criticized, too."
Given their phenomenal success this season, it is hardly surprising that Redskins players agree with Gibbs' decision.
"I wouldn't have it any other way," said wide receiver Gary Clark, one of eight Redskins named this week to the Pro Bowl. "That's the only way I can be battle-tested. I don't believe in pulling myself out. I wasn't brought up that way and apparently Coach Gibbs wasn't brought up that way either.
"We're playing to be 15-and-1," Clark added.
Matt Millen, the linebacker who has played on Super Bowl championship teams with the Los Angeles Raiders and the San Francisco 49ers, said the winning edge can be lost easily.
"It's tough," Millen said, "because you can talk about it all you want, but the bottom line is you still know there's a bigger agenda. The danger is to get out of it [the routine] mentally. It's too tough to get back once you've got the edge and you're on that roll, because the game is a mental game. If you lose a little bit, it's awfully hard to get it back."
But what about injuries?
"You can get hurt on the first play or the last play," Millen said. "That's always been a given, in any game."
Millen said his club needs to play well against the Eagles for another reason -- Washington has a bye when the playoffs begin the weekend of Dec. 28-29. Two weeks without a maximum effort would make it infinitely harder to get it all started again.