For weeks, Brent Musburger and Dick Vermeil have been telling each other there was no way they'd ever get to work the telecast of an NFL playoff matchup between the Philadelphia Eagles and Washington Redskins for ABC.

"I said, 'Nah, it won't happen,' " Musburger said the other day. "We just thought it was too good a game, and they'd give it to the other guys," ABC's so-called A-team of Al Michaels, Dan Dierdorf and Frank Gifford.

Vermeil, the coach of the Eagles until he walked away from the game after the 1982 season, admitted that initially he would have preferred a different assignment. He still lives in the Philadelphia area and knows that no matter how straight down the middle he plays it, he'll be knocked for being too critical of the hometown team by Eagles fans, or too biased toward his former team by viewers in Washington.

Nevertheless, when ABC airs its second NFL playoff game on Saturday (it did Super Bowl XXII), it will be de'ja` vu for some of us who know full well that when Musburger intones "you're looking live at Veterans Stadium in Philadelphia," it must be a very big event.

ABC will air both Saturday games (Kansas City at Miami is the other) as specified in the four-year, $3.64 billion contract the NFL and five networks signed last year, a concession the league made in exchange for the pricey rights fees. NBC and CBS will split the two Sunday games, when audiences generally are bigger.

For Musburger, it will mark his first play-by-play of an NFL game since 1974. The following season, Bob Wussler, then the head of CBS Sports, planted him in a studio as the host of "The NFL Today" and made him a star.

Musburger became the signature voice at CBS, and his presence usually translated into higher ratings, and a huge hike in hyperbole from a master of overstatement. When CBS announced he'd been fired over a contract dispute on the eve of the NCAA title game last year, the story became bigger than the event, and the subsequent speculation on his future also was widely covered.

Musburger eventually joined ABC, and critics seemed almost giddy at his fall from grace. His early assignments included the Little League World Series and harness racing, before being assigned to college football with Vermeil and college basketball with Jim Valvano, who also knows a little something about falling off the big horse.

"CBS is behind me now, but you don't ever forget it," Musburger said. "I've been very busy, so I haven't had a lot of time to dwell on it, but it is something you'll never forget, the way it went down with those people. At this place, it's been so comfortable, very pleasant. It's been much less frenetic. They've got a different management structure. They give you your assignments, and they don't mess with you much. Working with Dick has been a real pleasure. We've had a good time together."

Vermeil says Musburger's presence in the booth has had a calming effect on him. "He never gets upset, nothing bothers him and he brings an air of confidence to it," he said. "I've never tried to disillusion anyone about me being a broadcaster; I've never felt totally comfortable doing this, the way the big guy {John Madden at CBS} handles it. With Brent, I feel a lot better about my role. It's the first time he's only had to do one game a week; he's not being pulled in 100 different directions. I'm making him a football guy. I'm taking him to practices, he's talking to coaches and players, he's even looking at the films."

Vermeil, whose major shortcoming on TV has been a tendency to fog up the analysis with too much technical coaching babble, has been looking at film most of his adult life. And when he took the Eagles to the Super Bowl in the 1980-81 season, his status as one of the game's great young minds seemed secure. Then he walked away in 1982, a victim of too many days away from his family, too many nights on the office couch. This week, the death of his old friend, George Allen, provided a vivid reminder that he had done the right thing.

When Allen hired him as an assistant coach with the Rams in 1969, Vermeil became the first special teams coach in professional football.

"It was a fascinating year for me," he recalled. "In 1969, we played our league opener against the Colts, and I scouted them through every one of their preseason games. I broke down the film on the length of their shoe laces. I still don't know if George looked at all the stuff I gave him. But he wanted everything.

"One day, we were going down the elevator at Soldier Field. I'm a 33-year-old man. He says to me, 'We kick off at 1, where's the sun at 1 o'clock?' He needed to know that.

"He'd call me into his office and he'd tell me what it took to win. He'd say, 'One day, you'll be a head coach in the NFL, and when that happens, you have to do it your way.' He said you'll get fired eventually, whether you do it your way or the way management wants you to do it. He said the only consolation you'll have when you do get fired is if you did it your way, at least you won't second guess yourself."

And Vermeil said he has never second-guessed his decision to leave the sideline.

"I was doing the same things as George was doing," he said. "I knew what I was doing to myself when I walked away. If I'd had his emotional stamina, I'd still be doing it. But one of the most important people to know is yourself. There's no question that the game can do that to you."

Vermeil says he can't get Allen out of his thoughts these days, and the feeling will intensify Saturday. In fact, he says he feels a closer kinship to the Redskins than the Eagles. None of the players on the current Philadelphia roster played for him. He is not a particularly big fan of Buddy Ryan, and when he looks over to the Redskins' sideline he sees his good friend, Joe Gibbs, and people he once coached with: assistants Rod Dowhower and Torgy Torgeson, and defensive coordinator Richie Petitbon, who played for him in Los Angeles.

"I really didn't want to do this game," Vermeil said. "I didn't say anything to anyone. Hey, I do what I'm told to do. But right now, the more I prepare, the more excited I'm getting. It's the best game of the weekend. Dead even the way I see it."