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Dallas, Washington vie for NFC East lead

Just like old times. Redskins vs. Cowboys. Monday night football. First place in the NFC East on the line.

It could have been even more, one of the headliners of the year: 4-1 vs. 4-1.That was before telltale cracks turned into fissures for both teams in difficult losses last week. Now Washington and Dallas are 3-2 and face potential long-term problems as they resume one of the NFL's biggest rivalries at new Jack Kent Cooke Stadium.

"This is kind of a desperation game for both of us," Dallas coach Barry Switzer said. "Both of us need this one."

Perhaps trying to ignite a spark or two, both coaches spent the week taking shots at their own players. Switzer said three of the team's offensive stars - running back Emmitt Smith, left tackle Mark Tuinei and left guard Nate Newton - were slowing appreciably with age. Redskins coach Norv Turner took a subtle dig at any player who would use the team's rash of injuries as an excuse.

"When you're out there, nobody cares what the circumstance is," Turner said. "That's got to be the mindset. We get to put 11 guys out there, and every one of those 11 has to carry the load."

Such goading made for introspective moods in both locker rooms.

"It's a nationwide game," Redskins guard Joe Patton said. "In order for you not to look embarrassed, in order for you to get recognition, in order for you to get some kind of regrouping, you've got to go out and play a heck of a game against the Dallas Cowboys. We know we squandered a chance, and you can't squander too many chances."

Cowboys fullback Daryl Johnston knows Dallas must make a good account of itself.

"If we don't, we could find ourselves in the same shape as last year, out of the race for the home-field advantage," he said.

Both offenses are sputtering in the red zone. The Cowboys outgained the New York Giants more than 2-to-1 last week and still lost 20-17. Smith has yet to score a touchdown this year, and quarterback Troy Aikman has been getting hit more than usual.

"The ways things have been talked about around here, we can't run the ball at all," said Smith, who is 13th in the league in rushing after undergoing ankle and foot surgery earlier this year.

The Redskins couldn't run it either in a 24-10 loss to the Philadelphia Eagles, with Terry Allen netting just 30 yards. Quarterback Gus Frerotte took a pounding behind a line that has undergone yet another injury-induced shuffle.

Both teams have great cornerbacks, yet they are offset by defensive lines thinned by injuries and an off-the-field absence - the Cowboys' Leon Lett is serving a drug suspension, while the Redskins' Sean Gilbert is holding out.

The Cowboys will give rookie Antonio Anderson his first start after tackle Chad Hennings was lost for up to eight weeks with a groin injury, while the Redskins' rotation could include as many as three inexperienced players who were cut less than two months ago.

"Their front seven guys, there's some things that we feel like we might be able to do," Smith said. "Right now, if you watch me run, I'm falling forward as opposed to falling backward all the time last year."

The Cowboys took another blow late in the week when strong safety Darren Woodson hyperextended his right knee. Rookie Omar Stoutmire will start instead.

The Cowboys-Redskins rivalry, getting its first Monday night exposure in four years, lost some of its nationwide appeal during the 1990s as the teams struggled at various points.

Many on the Cowboys now see it as just another game. Not the Redskins. They've had this one circled in red since the schedule came out in the spring.

"It's still a great headliner," Redskins tackle Shar Pourdanesh said. "You got two division leaders that are tied for the lead going at it. You can't beat it."