On a day charged with emotion outside and inside RFK Stadium, a team of replacement Washington Redskins yesterday defeated the St. Louis Cardinals, 28-21, while striking Redskins walked a picket line with about 2,000 representatives of other unions.

For the first time since 1966, the stadium was not sold out for a Redskins game -- breaking a string of 159 consecutive full houses. Only 27,728 attended, about half capacity, and 17,035 chose not to use their season tickets. About 10,000 got their money back earlier in the week. What the absentees missed was a surprisingly exciting contest highlighted by Redskins replacement quarterback Ed Rubbert passing for 334 yards and throwing three touchdown passes to wide receiver Anthony Allen, who caught seven passes in all for a team-record 255 yards.

Although fans inside RFK were supportive of the replacement Redskins, who improved the club's record to 2-1, stadiums around the National Football League -- especially in heavily unionized areas -- recorded dramatically low attendance. In Philadelphia, only 4,074 showed up at Veterans Stadium for a game between the Eagles and Chicago Bears. In Detroit, only 4,919 saw the Lions play Tampa Bay; in Buffalo, only 9,860 attended the Bills-Indianapolis contest.

The unusual football Sunday unfolded amid speculation that the players strike may not last another week. NFL Players Association representatives from all 28 teams scheduled a meeting tonight in Chicago as reports circulated that the players may decide to withdraw their demand for the NFL to liberalize its policy toward free agency.

About 1,500 players have now missed two weeks' pay, and some are eager to concentrate on other issues, such as pension benefits and severance pay. Others believe a contract with the owners can be worked out after they return to work. Still others reportedly are dissatisfied with the leadership of the union and its executive director, Gene Upshaw. Retired player Upshaw, who is black, last week charged the owners with racism in their dealings with him.

Already, more than 80 veteran players around the league have defied the players association by returning in time for yesterday's games and reportedly as many as seven teams are ready to come back en masse this week. Redskins all-pro defensive end Dexter Manley has said he is considering becoming the first Washington player to go back. But apparently satisfied by what they saw, some fans left RFK Stadium yesterday chanting, "Stay on strike!"

Ironically, yesterday's Redskins-Cardinals score was the same as last October's game here between the teams. The ending was similar, too, with the Cardinals driving for a would-be tying touchdown but having time run out on them again.

An exuberant Redskins owner Jack Kent Cooke called the contest between replacement teams "one hell of a game. It's an indication of the spunk, courage, desire, enthusiasm, spirit and sacrifice" of his Redskins replacements. "They're unconquerable," he said, adding that the ovation his replacements received when they took the field was "one of the most satisfying things that I have observed today."

After the game, Cooke visited the Redskins locker room to congratulate a happy coach, Joe Gibbs.

"I feel sorry for the guys out there {on strike}," Gibbs said. "They're still a part of the team. But in the midst of all that, this is just a great experience."

In front of the stadium, Redskins player representative Neal Olkewicz enthusiastically expressed thanks to union supporters, fans who did not show up for the makeshift game and others who stopped by to offer their wishes and get Redskins autographs.

"It's just all I could have hoped for, really," he said. "This will help."

But Olkewicz admitted, "I never thought they'd get these games going. I thought it was just intimidation."

Said striking running back Keith Griffin: "It's good to see somebody out there helping support your cause -- it makes you feel good."

But of those fans passing by Griffin and nearby pickets and heading inside, he said, "For me, it gets discouraging to see."

After sizing up attendance in all cities -- 38,494 in Denver was the biggest crowd -- both the NFLPA and the owners claimed victory.

"It was football without fans -- studio football," said Doug Allen, assistant executive director of the NFLPA. But Tex Schramm, Cowboys president and a member of the NFL Management Council's executive committee, said, "It was successful from our standpoint because all the games were played."

Fans walking toward RFK under a brilliant, late-morning sun faced shouting, placard-waving union supporters, many of whom had been waiting most of the morning in a biting wind to yell at them or boo loudly.

Police estimated that at least 2,000 union pickets had joined the players. The pickets were kept in line by a usual game-day complement of about 60 police officers, according to Assistant Chief Isaac Fullwood Jr. "They've been very accommodating," he said. "Loud, but cooperative. When we tell them to move back, they move back."

There were three arrests, on disorderly conduct charges.

If striking Redskins literally stood tallest among the demonstrators who pressed at police lines in front of the stadium, they were vastly outnumbered by teachers, plumbers, letter carriers, truck drivers, furniture movers, hot dog vendors and dozens of other unionized workers chanting and holding signs.

"Scabs go home!" some chanted. And: "No scab football!" And: "We've got the players. You've got the scabs."

Signs read, "Why Pay to See Sandlot Football," "Union Stagehands Support NFLPA," "Clothing and Textile Workers Say Sack the Scabs" and "Baltimore AFL-CIO Supports Real Players."

Most fans had firm opinions on the players strike and the substitute game, and offered them unhesitatingly. Some saw the day as an opportunity to attend an NFL game, at last, while others joined with the pickets in protest against the club owners.

Zema Williams, known as "Chief Zee," who dresses each Sunday in complete Indian garb, joined sign-carrying protesters and even signed autographs himself.

"It's sad," he said. "But I broke my leg in Philadelphia in '83 and the players were very good to me. Mark Murphy {former Redskin now assistant to the NFLPA's Upshaw} took up some money and helped me out. I was in a wheelchair for six weeks. I'm just supporting them on behalf of what they did for me."

Meanwhile, a number of fans said they believed the players were seeking too much from the owners. One carried a sign: "NFL union players: Greedy, greedy, greedy."

"Somebody's got to stand up to them," said Jack Peoples of Gaithersburg, lifting his sign high. "They're greedy, greedy, greedy."

Referring to pickets from other unions, John Brzostowski of Crofton said, "They think the players are behind them, but they're wrong. If the peanut vendors went out on strike, do you think the players would stop the game for them?"

Brzostowski, like some other fans, pumped his fist in the air as he passed demonstrators, walking almost casually. Others hurried, eyes front. Some smiled at the shouting mass of protesters. Some ticket-holders sneered and shouted back. Curious youngsters stopped to look and nervous fathers nudged them along. One gathered his 7-year-old boy by the shoulder and yelled into the din: "Support mediocrity! Join a union!"

"Think about that," said Charles Hinders, a union man from Merrifield. "What they don't understand is that all the paid holidays you have, your insurance, safe workplace, child labor laws -- all that is because somebody went on strike for you."

Some early arrivals got to see the Redskins replacements arrive by bus, with only Olkewicz and NFLPA official Murphy watching the substitute team roll by.

"I purposely didn't have the players here early," Olkewicz said. "I didn't want to have any incidents. I wanted it low-key." But Olkewicz peered into the buses' dark-tinted windows in silent reprimand. "I tried to see as many people as I could see."

After the game began, about a half-dozen striking players and leaders of various unions squeezed together on a small platform on the esplanade in front of the stadium. Hundreds of union supporters cheered speeches from union officials and players.

"This is a goal-line stand for dignity, justice and respect," said Minor Christian, president of the Food and Beverage Workers Union, Local 32.

"We've been in your schools, we've been in your neighborhoods, we've been in your communities," said cornerback Darrell Green. "We're part of you and you're part of us."

"I come from a steel town in Pennsylvania," said Olkewicz. "My father went to work every day carrying a brown bag. And I'm going to go back to that same type of life when I'm done playing football. The owners, they've pretty much had a silver spoon in their mouths from the day they were born, and they'll continue to have it."

Outside the stadium, fans cheered. Inside the stadium, fans cheered.

Washington Post staff writers Mark Asher and Christine Brennan contributed to this report.