Dick Vermeil is the hottest coaching property in the NFL. His enthusiasm, motivational abilities and increasing success have put him in line for promotion to the same rarefied atmosphere currently occupied by the likes of Chuck Noll, Don Shula and Tom Landry.

But first, Vermeil has to eliminate a potential Achilles' heel.

Does he burn out his players too early, so that by the time they reach the playoffs they aren't capable of producing their best football?

That's the major criticism Vermeil will be trying to put to rest during this season's playoffs, which will begin for his Philadelphia Eagles Saturday in Veterans Stadium against the underdog Minnesota Vikings.

Vermeil heatedly denies that his constant pushing -- he prides himself on 18-hour days and some of the longest practices in the league -- leaves his club vulnerable to a playoff downfall. Instead, he says his emotional appeals, which are so reminiscent of George Allen's with the Redskins, enable his players to realize their potential in time for the playoffs.

But even he has to admit the Eagles are entering these postseason contests coming off some of their worst performances of the season. If Philadelphis is peaking, everyone but Vermeil has been fooled.

Consider:

Philadelphia jumped to an 11-1 record and was considered the odds-on favorite for a trip to the Super Bowl. Then the Eagles lost three of their last four and now rank behind Atlanta, and possibly Dallas, as the likely NFC Super Bowl participant.

The Eagles entered the final contest against Dallas needing to lose by fewer than 25 points in order to win the NFC East race. But they actually fell behind by 25 in the second half before rallying to cut the final margin to eight. They wound up falling to the Cowboys and Falcons at the end of the season.

Wilbert Montgomery has been slowed most of the season by leg injuries and has yet to run as consistently well as he did last year. Although the Eagles managed to keep winning midway through the schedule without him, they will have difficulty in the playoffs unless he is more productive.

The offensive line has slumped, dragging down the Eagle attack in the process. Only the continued excellence of the Philadelphia defense, especially its front three and linebackers, prevented an even sloppier finish.

Eagle fans have to look only as far back as last season to see what a less than efficient Philadelphia team does in the playoffs. The Eagles barely got by weak Chicago in the wild card round, then were trampled by Tampa Bay the next week.

Vermeil says these playoff problems are part of a learning process for his club, one of the worst in the league only a few years ago. Each season, he expects gradual improvement from his players as he constructs an increasingly more solid program.

Allen, an idol of Vermeil's, heard smiliar criticism during his Redskin tenure about the way he pushed his players emotionally from the start of training camp.Washington, like Philadelphia, seemed to run down when it got into the playoffs and Allen did not win a playoff game his last six years with the club.

Whether the Eagles now are ready for the Super Bowl probably will be determined by the Philadelphia defense. This is the time of year defensive units normally begin to dominate, and the Eagles allowed the fewest points in the NFL.

The playoffs may serve as a coming-out party not only for that defense but for its least appreciated player, end Carl Hairston.

Redskin coaches consider him the finest end and best defensive player they saw this year in either conference. Yet Hairston didn't make the Pro Bowl, nor will he be a consenus all-pro.

"He made all the right plays against us," Coach Jack Pardee said. "And on film, he did it every game. You couldn't ask for a more dominating player at his position. No one could block him. I guess it just takes time for someone to receive recognition. Maybe he will have a good playoff and emerge a star."

Hairston is a fifth-year man from Maryland-Eastern Shore who has been overshadowed by nose man Charlie Johnson and linebackers Bill Bergey and Jerry Robinson. But Pardee says that if teams can control Hairston, they have taken a major step toward solving the Eagle defense.

"He's a guy that has grown and improved with experience," Pardee said. "Last year, you could see him gettin better. This year, he just took off. If he has a big playoff, it's going to make the Eagles that much harder to beat."

And for those who think you need high-round draft choices to put together a top-notch defensive line, consider this: the Philadelphia front three contains two seventh round picks (Hairston and Johnson) and a fourth rounder (Dennis Harrison).