Safety Eddie Brown's spectacular end-zone interception saved Washington's 26-20 victory over the St. Louis Cardinals today and kept alive the Redskins' playoff hopes.

Brown, playing with two broken ribs and a sprained knee, made a diving catch of the pass Jim Hart intended for Terry Metcalf with 68 seconds remaining in a chilling, bite-your-fingernails-off thriller.

The loss eliminated the Cardinals from the National Football Conference wild-card race.

"All the guys just come together today," said running back Mike Thomas.

They came together under the direction of Billy Kilmer, the 38-year-old veteran who hadn't played in six weeks but today helped produce a season-high 26 points.

They prevailed because Kilmer spent most of his day patiently aiming at another of the forgotten people - running back Calvin Hill - and because Mark Moseley was able to block out the foot-numbing cold and kick field goals of 40, 23, 37 and 42 yards, despite temperatures in the teens and a chill factor below zero.

Those points a 14-yard first-quarter touchdown pass from Kilmer to Hill and Thomas' four-yard fourth-quarter sweep right into the end zone, provided the points to chill the Cardinals for good this season. It was the Redskins's fourth straight victory over St. Louis and fifth in the last six games.

For George Allen, the victory also marked the 12th straight year as a head coach that his teams have posted winning records. But Allen and the Redskins will be far more interested in the numbers posted Sunday and next week by the Redskins' main rivals for the wild card berth. Chicago and Minnesota.

A Redskin victory in Washington next Saturday against the Los Angeles Rams guarantees nothing. If the Vikings win the Central Division and the Redskins and Bears finish 9-5, the Bears probably would get the wild-card spot instead of Washington because of a better point differential in a conference games. The Bears had a 39-point advantage going into this weekend.

But the Redskins all insisted they would not worry about something they have no control over. They were content to rejoice in a victory Allen later described as "one of the biggest in our seven years here."

Surely Allen had taken one of the biggest gambles of his career, benching a winning quarterback, Joe Thiesmann, in favor of the rusty, but crafty Kilmer. He also risked Chris Hanburger's wounded knee against the Cardinals.

Both moves worked.

Kilmer completed 14 of his 28 passes for 120 yards and a touchdown. He also kept the second touchdown drive alive with a 12-yard trot-run for a first down that became a 27-yard gain when Cardinal linebacker Tim Kearney was called for a personal foul on the sideline tackle.

Kilmer's main target was Hill, the classy tailback who was playing more because Thomas popped his hamstring again in the pregame warm-up. Hill caught eight passes for 66 yards, and admitted later, "It was nice to contribute again. I feel wonderful."

Hanburger, making only his third start of the season, called the signals for a defense that kept the Cardinals mostly in check, save for a 68-yard run-pass touchdown by Metcalf that got the Cardinals back in the game with plenty of time left in the fourth quarter.

But the Redskins held the NFC's No. 1 pass offense to 133 yards. They sacked quarterback Hart three times and pressured him all afternoon. Hart completed only seven of 26 passes. And they intercepted three of his passes, none of them bigger than Brown's diving catch when the Redskins needed it most.

Trailing by six with 1:42 left in the game, the Cardinals got the ball at their 30-yard line for one last, desperate thrust.

From there, Hart immediately got into scoring position at the Redskin 34 with a 36-yard pass to that dangerous and deadly swiftly, wide receiver Mel Gray.

On first down, Ken Houston broke up a pass intended for tight end J. V. Cain. Many in the chilled crowd of 36.067 believed Houston should have been called for pass interference. No flags fell.

On second down. Hart sent Metcalf deep. And Brown, the fifth defensive back in the nickel defense, was with him every step.

Hart's pass seemed badly overthrown. But Brown, straining so hard to get to the ball he pulled a hamstring muscle, somehow got his hands on the ball, tucked it into his gut and fell into the end zone, landing on his bashed ribs.

The Redskins took over at the 20 and killed the clock, as well as the Cardinals.

"Yeah, that kind of hurt a little," Brown said later. "No. I've never made a catch like that in a game in this league. Maybe in the backyard, or in a touch game, but nothing like this.

"I wasn't able to practice all last week. I came out on Wednesday, tried to twist but the ribs were killing me, so I went back in. No, there was never any doubt whether I'd play. I just took a few pain-killers and sucked it up. At this stage, you have to.

"On that play, my responsibility was to take Metcalf deep. He's been running deep patterns all day, something he hasn't done all year. But I knew he was going deep on this one and I just took off.

"Right place, right time, that's all I can say."

Metcalf also was involved in another fourth-quarter play that turned in the Redskins' favor and allowed them to score the deciding points.

Metcalf gained 119 yards in 19 carries and contributed a total of 256 yards in rushing, receiving and kick returning but it is likely the fans will remember his fumble on the kickoff following Moseley's fourth field goal. Metcalf came whooshing up the middle, was knocked off balanced by Rusty Tillman and stripped of the ball by reserve linebacker Joe Harris, who received a game ball for the play.

Windlan Hall recovered the football for Washington at the Cardinal 41. After Kilmer's run and Kearney's attempt to take the quarterback's head off, Kilmer passed on first down at the 15, hitting rookie fullback Clarence Harmon for five yards. Harmon gained four more off tackle, then Hill went around right end for two yards and a first down at the four.

From there, Thomas got the call, despite his injured hamstring.

"It was just a basic sweep right and I got great blocking," Thomas said. "Why did I play? You have to play in these games. What I got is nothing compared to some of these other guys."

Moseley's extra point gave the Redskins what should have been an insurmountable 26-13 lead with 11:02 left.

But Metcalf found a seam in the Redskin zone defense on the first play after the kickoff, caught the ball at the 50 and beat Joe Lavender and three other Redskins to the goal line for a 63-yard touchdown play that gave the Cardinals hope.

But it was false hope, because the Redskins had a big play left themselves. And when it was over, Allen was telling everyone that "all the people in Washington, D.C., should be proud of this team.

"We had to have it, they had to have it, and we beat them at their best," he said. "This was a playoff game. Before it started, I wrote three things on the blackboard: "Playoff Game, Stick Together and Keep Your Poise.

"Our surprise starters (Kilmer and Hanburger) came thrugh in a big way. I made the Kilmer decision early in the week. It was strategy and I didn't want to announce it and let them (the Cardinals) know early in the week who the quarterback would be. That's my policy."

And who would his quarterback be Saturday against the Rams, someone factiously asked Allen.

"Mark Moseley," he replied, with an ear-to-ear grin.