Dick Vermeil was torn today between upholding the image of the work ethic and letting his natural bubbly humor prevail.

At the news conference held by the Philadelphia Eagles coach it was suggested that the Eastern Division of the National Football Conference now has deteriorated into a two-team race, between his 6-1 club and the 5-2 Dallas Cowboys, whom the Eagles beat Sunday.

"We'd like to keep it that way," he aid impishly, then quickly tried to throw the Washington Redskins a bone: "(They) are a playoff caliber team when they play playoff caliber football. That must have been a great game on Sunday (against St. Louis).

"Our players are as excited as hell," Vermeil went on. "I gave them the day off. I hated to; I'd like to show the offensive team the mistakes they made.

"I had put the Cowboys on a pedestal from looking at films of their games," he said. "It's a big thrill to beat those sons of guns. They've kicked our butts a few times. We got a lot of satisfaction out of beating them (17-10).

"We finally won at Dallas last year. That was number one in my heart because it established our program. But I wouldn't want to play them the best out of seven games."

In a quick bid to deny the Cowboys a psychological advantage for their return match in Dallas, Vermeil said, "Los Angeles has the best offense in the league but Dallas has the best defense and is the most talented team."

He reported that Wilbert Montgomery suffered a hyperextended knee in the first quarter Sunday, the period when Tony Dorsett bruised his ribs and left the game.

Can the Eagles win without Montgomery in the lineup?

"We won three weeks in a row without him," Vermeil replied. "But I would not like to have to prove that we can.

"The same question can be asked of Tom Landry: 'Can the Cowboys win without Tony Dorsett?'"

[The Cowboys said today Dorsett had redamaged ribs hurt last season. He was expected at practice late in the week, but was listed as questionable for Sunday's San Diego game.]

Vermeil said of Montgomery's injury, "You should be on the sideline with my responsibility and have the doctor come up to you and say that Wilbert's knee was all torn up. It numbs you.

"Later, he said it wasn't so serious. Wilbert was down to our sick bay this morning and it seems to be a hyper-extension. Right now, I'd say he's questionable for Sunday against the Bears.

"We'll be ready for Chicago. They will come here with a vengeance since we knocked them out of the playoffs last season. We have to remember that we were 6-1 last year, then lost three games in a row.

"I don't think our defense can play any better than it did Sunday. The Cowboys scored 59 points in their previous game. Our defensive linemen reported to camp early, with the rookies. They are my clutch."

Vermeil butters up the fans, as George Allen used to do in Washington.

"The fans began talking to me about the Cowboys in March, April, May," Vermeil said. "I have an Eagles bumper sticker on my station wagon and on my way to the office this morning people were honking and giving me the V for victory shot and thumbs-up signs. And you know in Philly when things are not going right the fans might give you the middle finger."

Asked how he celebrated, Vermeil said, "Well, (owner) Len Tose spoiled me rotten; he sent me a case of Dom Perignon. Do you know how much that costs?

"We're used to drinking Napa Valley red. You won't appreciate that if you're not from California," Vermeil added, laughing.

Suddenly, Vermeil recalled that it was his wife Carol's birthday.

"Geez," he said to his secretary, "I haven't even got a card for her yet. Wire her some flowers, will you?"

Then to sportscaster Tom Brookshier he said, "Boy, I'd like to have about four days off in a row to go to the beach and just raise hell."

And how does Vermeil "raise hell?"

He paused, turned on his discreet button and said, "By going hunting." It was the only time today he didn't sound sincere.