Representatives of the striking players on the 28 National Football League teams still were meeting early this morning in Chicago to discuss options for getting the owners back to the bargaining table after management had increased pressure on the union to end its 14-day-old strike without a signed contract.

Meeting in New York yesterday, the executive committee of the Management Council, the owners' negotiating arm, reaffirmed its position that all games played with replacement players will count toward the playoffs and said that striking players have until 1 p.m. Wednesday to report and be eligible for this weekend's games. Last week the deadline was 3 p.m. Friday.

In Chicago, player representatives were debating at least two major issues -- whether to drop free agency from their list of demands and whether to go back to work without a contract. Sources said the player representatives also want the owners not to count games played this past weekend and last night in the standings.

Before the NFL Players Association meeting began last night at about 11 p.m., sources said many of the representatives were prepared to drop their demands on free agency, the major sticking point of negotiations to date. Free agency allows a player to move on his own to another team after his contract expires.

"I would think that our position {on free agency} would change," Ron Rivera of the Chicago Bears said.

"It's a process that involves tradeoffs -- tradeoffs from us and tradeoffs from them," said Carl Ekern of the Los Angeles Rams. "And we can't do that until we get to the negotiating table." Asked if he would return to work without a new contract, Ekern said, "No. A collective bargaining agreement controls how we are treated."

The players were meeting in a suburban Chicago hotel. They had several informal sessions during the evening, then met en masse with NFLPA Executive Director Gene Upshaw, a late arrival after flying in from Texas. The meeting still was under way at 2:45 a.m.

Before leaving Houston, where he attended his grandmother's funeral, Upshaw, according to United Press International, told KPRC-TV of Houston of "secret discussions with management the past three days . . . There are some things going on behind the scenes that no one even knows about, not even my players, not the owners, not even the public."

Striking players have lost two weeks' pay -- they are paid 16 times a season -- and there were unsubstantiated reports over the weekend that as many as seven teams were ready to cross the picket lines early this week. Those reports were denied by union leaders and player representatives.

Last night, San Francisco linebacker Keena Turner, representing his teammates in Chicago, indicated the 49ers could have many defections before the owners' new Wednesday deadline. "Our team has made it clear that we don't care about free agency," he said. "We want to move off of free agency."

The six-member Management Council, headed by Tampa Bay Buccaneers owner Hugh Culverhouse, had issued a statement apparently aimed toward getting the players back to work after a weekend in which the owners were able to field replacement teams but live attendance was off 75 percent and television ratings down as much as 49 percent {See story, Page E1}.

"We have authorized the league's competition committee to work out tie-breaking procedures for a 15-game schedule," the statement said. "We reaffirm that the games of Oct. 4 and 5 and all games played this season count toward the Super Bowl. Returning players who rejoin their clubs by 1 p.m. Wednesday will be eligible to play in the next weekend's games.

"Returning players continue to be covered under the terms and conditions of the old collective bargaining agreement until a new one is negotiated with the union. No player benefits have been discontinued."

Both sides yesterday also were assessing the impact of Sunday's games. Attendance at stadiums was severely reduced -- the 13 Sunday games averaged 16,987 compared to about 58,000 for the first two weeks, when the regulars were playing. Last night's game between the New York Giants and San Francisco 49ers drew 16,471 to 76,891-capacity Giants Stadium in New Jersey. The defending Super Bowl champion Giants lost, 41-21, and fell to 0-3 for the season.

"There were some competitive games and some good performances, but overall the first week of replacement football was disappointing," said Michael Weisman, executive producer of NBC Sports. However, CBS spokeswoman Susan Kerr said overnight ratings from major markets around the country were "much greater than we had expected."

At the time talks broke off Sept. 25, Jack Donlan, the Management Council's chief negotiator, ventured that the remaining issues are so complex and the negotiations were so far behind that it would take six to eight weeks for a contract to be finished once the free agency issue was decided. Yesterday, Cleveland Browns owner Art Modell, chairman of the league's television committee, said it might take all season to work out the contract language.

But Dallas Cowboys President Tex Schramm said recently it could be worked out in a day and Pittsburgh Steelers President Dan Rooney said yesterday a settlement could come rapidly if the players removed free agency from the table.

The union is leery of returning without a contract because of bad experiences in the past, according to Upshaw and Doug Allen, his top assistant.

Upshaw cited the end of the 57-day strike in 1982, when the players went back with a signed agreement and management found a loophole that the players say has resulted in the league withholding $18 million in pension-fund contributions. Allen noted that the players went three years without a contract when they went back to work during the preseason in 1974.

Differences escalated in the two weeks since the strike began, which both sides say is normal. The owners want to renegotiate the length of the contract -- the only major issue on which both sides agreed -- from three to at least five years. The players want to wipe the results of this weekend's games off the book, so they have no bearing in deciding who makes the playoffs.

Both sides had reasons to think their positions were strengthened by what occurred Sunday. At least one team, the Browns, made more money Sunday off a game that drew 14,830 at New England than a full house at 80,000-seat Cleveland Stadium would produce.

"That's what my accountant tells me," Modell said. "We made more money this week than had we played to a full house and had a full payroll. But I'm not looking to make money off a strike . . . I only hope this thing comes to a conclusion soon. It's in the best interests of everybody to get it settled."

The Browns made more money because of a significant reduction in payroll. The average weekly payroll in the league is $837,000, according to NFLPA figures. But Modell's average payroll is almost $1.2 million, or about $19 million annually.

Modell also isn't sure how much of the recent television payment the teams will be able to keep. The league received the second of its four payments from the three networks last week, for almost $100 million.

"I don't know what our television rights payments will turn out to be over the long haul," Modell said. "They're contractually obligated to pay us in full. But we're morally obligated to cure their ills {if ratings decline}. We'll make good."

NBC announced yesterday that it would carry the replacement games this week, and CBS is likely to announce the same thing today. Modell called the rating for last night's Monday Night Football "critical."