The St. Louis Cardinals turned the Washington Redskins into a struggling, staggering and perhaps even a strangling football team yesterday by scoring 24 points in the first 20 minutes and holding on for a 27-17 victory at RFK Stadium.

The Redskins rallied smartly from that early deficit by scoring 17 straight points. But in the end, they self-destructed when it counted most, and now find themselves tied for first place in the NFC East with the Cowboys. Both teams are 8-4 going into another big shootout in Dallas Thursday.

The Redskin fold in the end was particularly upsetting to linebacker Mike Curtis, who pointed an angry finger at his teammates "for just not being aggressive enough."

"We are not punishing teams," Curtis said. "The Redskins have never been known as a punishing team, but we better do something because we're sure not going to do anything with all these mental gymnastics.

"You can talk aggression all you want, make it sound like you're smashing and killing people, but unless you see a guy down on the field, all the theatrics don't mean a thing.

"I think we were lucky in a lot of our wins. Maybe the team has relaxed. But the big thing is we were making our own luck. If we don't do that again, we're going to get our butts kicked. A lot of guys have it (aggression), but a lot don't. I don't think enough guys have it."

In addition to suffering their first loss of the season at home and seeing a five-game winning streak over the Cardinals ended, the Redskins lost defensive tackle Diron Talbert for the season with torn knee ligaments. He will undergo surgery today at Sibley Hospital.

Safety Don Harris, among the most valuable special teamers and the nickel defensive back, also will be extremely doubtful for action against Dallas because of a sprained neck.

"It's disheartening as hell," said Redskin quarterback Joe Theismann, the victim of three interceptions and nine sacks by a Cardinal defense that previously had managed to sack opposing quarterbacks only 20 times all years.

"Probably the best thing to come out of this game is that we have a short week and we won't have to look at the films," said Theismann.

Redskin coaches were doing that late last night at Redskin Park preparing for Dallas, and what they saw was not especially pleasant. Among the lowlights:

Willard Harrell's 70-yard punt return for a first-period Cardinal touchdown; Jim Hart touchdown passes of 21 yards to Terry Stief - with an assist to Mel Gray, who tipped the ball - and of four yards to tight end Al Chandler; and Jim Bakken field goals of 32 and 37 yards.

A Redskin runnig attack forced to play without the injured John Riggins (sprained ankle) that gained minusone yards in the first half and 18 for the day - this against the NFC's worst defense against the NFC's worst defense against the rush.

(Running back Mike Thomas gained two yards in nine tries and twice drew boos when he carried pitchouts out of bounds rather than turn the corner into pursuing Cardinals.

(Riggins beat a hasty retreat from the Redskin locker room, saying only, "I really don't have much to say." Could he have played? he was asked. "We'll never know," he said, then walked out the door.)

A Redskin defense that yielded 166 yards rushing, 123 to third-year running back Wayne Morris, who had his first 100-yard day as a professional.

Redskin wide receiver Danny Buggs dropped a certain 63-yard touchdown pass late in the third quarter, when a catch would have put the Redskins within three points of the Cardinals with a full quarter to play.

Buggs dropped another long Theismann throw but even had he held on, that play - an almost certain 94-yard touchdown - would have been nullified by a holding call against offensive tackle Jeff Williams.

Most of the Redskins agreed that Harrell's first-quarter dash up the middle of the field to the end zone - the first punt returned for a touchdown against the Redskins since 1974 - provided a psychological lift for the Cardinals.

The Redskins were, in essence, playing a man short on punt coverage all day because center Ted Fritsch, playing with three broken ribs, had been told not to risk further injury by getting involved in violent collisions.

"We could see that they had started off trying to run a right return and we really had it covered," said Redskin linebacker Pete Wysocki.

"The guy (Harrell) couldn't get to the corner, he had no place to go, so he took it up the middle. He doesn't do that very often. Nobody expected Teddy to cover. We should have gotten him, but that's what you always say when you lose. It really got them psyched up."

The Redskins got a sweet surge of adrenalin after getting their act together midway through the second period.

Trailing, 24-0, Theismann hit John McDaniel with a 43-yard pass down the left sideline to help set up a 13-yard touchdown pass to Mike Thomas, cutting the St. Louis lead to 24-7 with 6:40 left in the first half.

Joe Lavender's interception on the next Cardinal series set up a 50-yard Mark Moseley field goal with 1:55 left in the second period, and the Cardinals held a 24-10 lead at intermission.

When Theismann hit McDaniel in full stride two steps ahead of Cardinal cornerback Lee Nelson for a 42-yard touchdown pass, the Cardinals' advantage was down to 24-17 with 8:36 remaining in the third period.

St. Louis recovered its composure long enough to drive from its 26 to a first down at the Washington 11, mostly because of Morris, who picked up 50 of those yards running and catching passes.

But the Redskins stiffened, and Bakken came on to kick a 27-yard field goal for a 27-17 lead with 2:54 left in the third quarter. That kick also put Bakken behind only George Blanda on the NFL all-time scoring list with 1,367 points.

Buggs' big blunder came on the Redskins' next series. On first and 10 at his 37, he went streaking downfield on a post pattern, had two steps on the closest defender and dropped the ball.

"It was a perfect throw, I just dropped it," said Buggs. "There's no excuse for it, none. I didn't look it in like I was supposed to. Both balls I dropped were perfectly thrown. What else can I say?

"I guess I was thinking about running with it before I caught it. I just have to regroup. It's the first pass I've dropped this year. That's just not me."

The Redskins were forced to punt, got the ball again early in the fourth quarter and could not move past midfield. Buggs' second drop came with 6 1/2 minutes left, and again Washington could not pick up a first down.

There was faint flicker of hope when the Redskins drove to a first down at the Cardinal 42 with 2:13 left. But Theismann scrambled to his left on first down, overthrew tight end Jean Fugett and watched in horror as his old Redskin teammate and roommate, safety Ken Stone, intercepted to kill the comeback.

The Redskins now find themselves limping into Dallas with four losses in their last six games, three key starters - Talbert, offensive tackle George Starke and cornerback Lemar Parrish - not available and Riggins' status uncertain.

Theismann tried to remain positive.

"We are still in first place," he said. "But we have to get our respectability back, we have to get the fire back and start playing with some consistency."

"We've just got to regroup," added Coach Jack Pardee. "What concerns me now is our injury situation. We're getting awfully beat up. I think we'll be ready for Dallas, but we're hurting physically, and that concerns me more than getting ready psychologically."

A few hours later, Pardee was out at Redskin Park, pering over films and looking for ways to turn his team around.

"It's going to be a long night," he said.