HERNDON, VA — HERNDON, Va. -- Barry Sanders and Ricky Ervins will duel for the first time Sunday.
It's not likely to be the last time.
When the Washington Redskins play the Detroit Lions in the NFC title game at RFK Stadium on Sunday, much of the focus will be on Sanders.
L He's established himself as one of the game's great runners.
"He's something special to watch, like a human highlight film," Lions quarterback Erik Kramer said. "Right when you think he's made the greatest run in the world, he turns around and does something more spectacular. He may only gain 2 yards, but it's an incredible run."
The Lions like to make much of the fact that Sanders didn't play when the Redskins drilled the Lions, 45-0, in the season opener.
If the Lions are to spring the upset of the season Sunday, Sanders has to have a great game. He gained 104 yards in 11 carries when the Lions lost to the Redskins, 41-38,in an overtime game last year. The Lions want to get the ball into Sanders' hands more often this time.
The Redskins, though, may have the weapon to counter Sanders: Ervins.
It's been overlooked that Ervins didn't play in the first game against the Lions until the fourth quarter, when the Redskins had the 45-0 lead.
Although Earnest Byner still is the starter, Ervins figures to play a much larger role this time.
In his first playoff game, against the Atlanta Falcons on Saturday, Ervins ran for 104 yards in 23 carries.
Although coach Joe Gibbs often has been reluctant to run rookie running backs, Ervins has won him over.
"As far as I'm concerned, he's earned his wings in this league," Gibbs said. "We'll play any rookie who earns his way and can show us he can do it."
Even Ervins, who was the eighth running back taken on the third round, but was 10th in the NFC in rushing with 680 yards (Byner was fourth at 1,048), is surprised he's seen so much action.
"You probably dream about it, but you would never expect to be playing as much. I thought I would be a third-down back," Ervins said.
The two running backs Ervins looks up to are former Chicago Bears star Walter Payton and Sanders. He got to know Sanders when a friend introduced them while he was in college at Southern California. They keep in touch on the phone.
"I like his running style and he's very down to earth," Ervins said. "I'm always studying him. The guy is fantastic, he's a joy to watch. The advice he gave me in college was just be a smart runner, keep my head up and run. Usually, we just talk about life."
Ervins doesn't mind it when the field is muddy the way it was last week, when a rainstorm turned the field into a quagmire.
"When we've got bad weather, the Hogs just blow their men off the line and all you've got to do is run straight and hit the holes," he said.
This has all happened so fast for Ervins that he has trouble realizing the significance of a shot at the Super Bowl.
"I'm a rookie," he said. "I've never been here before in this situation. It's kind of easy for me. I'm happy, but I don't think the situation has really dawned on me. I guess after the season, everything will dawn on me. The other guys tell me this is a once-in-a-lifetime chance."
The veterans know a shot at the Super Bowl doesn't happen every year.
Byner, for example, was in Cleveland when the Browns lost back-to-back AFC title games to the Denver Broncos in 1986-87. In the second one, he fumbled in the final minute as he was going in for what would have been the tying touchdown.
This is Byner's first conference title game since that fumble, and at age 29, he doesn't figure to have many chances left.
The Redskins say Byner, who declined a request for an interview yesterday, still is the starter even though Ervins got most of the attention this week.
"We lost Earnest," Gibbs said. "He's going to the Pro Bowl. He's our leader. What we do is start with Earnest and play both of them. It's best to have two like that."
Ervins says he's learned a lot from Byner.
"He's really built me up. He's really my mentor. When he's on the field, I watch him all the time. When I go in, he encourages me and explains things to me. It's a good starter. He's the starter and when he needs a break, I get a chance," he said.
Ervins is making the most of his chances.
NOTES: The grass field at Redskin Park is so muddy that the Redskins are practicing on their artificial turf field this week. They won't mind it, though, if the field at RFK is muddy Sunday. . . . Gibbs has closed practices to the members of the media again this week.