The saving grace of a storybook ending is that it wipes out the memory of the beginning and the middle. Doug Williams had his worst game as a Washington Redskin -- overthrowing, underthrowing, completing only nine of 26 passes -- and by tomorrow nobody will remember. All they'll care about, and all that matters, is that Williams is going to the Super Bowl. In playoffs, as Vince Lombardi well knew, "Winning isn't everything. It's the only thing." People focus on the fact that a kiss from a Princess turned the frog into a handsome Prince, they couldn't care less how wet he used to get sleeping on a lily pad. "You work all your life for this opportunity," Williams said. "And if you have to struggle to get there, that's okay." As for those who may have said, or even thought, he was a choker, Williams is right now enjoying what appears to be the last laugh: "I'll choke all the way to San Diego, that's fine with me."

The central debate of this Redskins' season has been at quarterback, and this, too, was one of those games. Although Joe Gibbs said he never gave the slightest thought to removing Williams, there was obvious discontent in the stands at the way the game was proceeding, especially in the second half. Williams was just four of 14 in the first half, but his receivers often had failed him. In the second half, though, Williams was his own worst enemy. He badly missed wide open Don Warren for a first down, overthrew Gary Clark on what appeared to be a certain touchdown route, and overthrew Anthony Allen. At one point in the fourth quarter, Williams was seven for 24 for 77 yards. It was precious few weeks ago that numbers like those -- in fact, numbers slightly better than those -- got Jay Schroeder yanked.

But there's no doubt that Williams is the quarterback of this team now. Over the course of this season, he has earned the confidence and respect of the entire team. Not a player thought a change would be made here. And Williams, in true storybook fashion, saved the best for last. His eighth completion came on a third-and-five call on his 46: a big, big pass to Clark running a stop and go against a rookie on the right side. Williams laid it in there soft as a pillow, 35 yards worth and Clark added on eight more. Two runs later, Williams went back to Clark, who was in his typical possession pass posture -- on his knees getting grass stains on his uniform, this time in the right side of the end zone. "I ran over trying to catch Gary to congratulate him," said Jeff Bostic. "He runs a 4.5, I run a 5.2. It took a while for me to get there. We almost ran out of stadium."

That pass made it 17-10, Washington, and right then and there Williams figured he was going to the Super Bowl. As soon as the pass was caught, Williams ran over to Mark May, who was, coincidentally, running over to him. As May went to lift Williams into the air -- which is the way it ought to be considering May weighs 295 -- he found Williams raising him. Talk about someone doing the heavy lifting. "I couldn't believe it," May said. "I screamed at him, 'Doug, your back! Take care of your back!' "

As they hugged, May remembers saying, "We did it. I love you. We're there." What Williams remembers is believing all those things and then "feeling my heart in my throat" standing on the side line watching the Vikings drive all the way down the field for a chance to tie in the closing seconds. But when Darrin Nelson dropped the fourth-down pass at the 1 that gave the ball and the game back to the Redskins, Williams knew, for sure, his time had come. He jogged out for the last snap, his feet hardly touching the ground. First, Jeff Bostic embraced him in the huddle, then Joe Jacoby. The words "San Diego" and "thank you" were on everybody's lips. Another breathless finish. Another slender win.

Perseverance has been the story of Williams' career, and perseverance was again Williams' story in this game. Asked if he was frustrated by his receivers' errors or his own inaccuracies, Williams said, "I've played this game too long to get frustrated. A lot of points in the game it doesn't go well. But you can't hang your head. You go out and try to make things happen. That's what you have to do."

Finally, after almost a whole game trying, Williams did make something happen. And to those who asked if he'd proven anything out there, Williams said with just the slightest edge, "I proved I could get to the Super Bowl. Not that I ever doubted it, I just needed the opportunity. Washington gave me the opportunity. A lot of people spread the word I was washed up and couldn't play anymore. Some people bought it, and some people didn't. This organization didn't buy it."

But the irony of this game is how close Williams came to losing the opportunity. Midway through the third quarter, after scrambling 10 yards to the Vikings' 11, Williams was hit hard, jammed his right shoulder, and lay motionless for a few anxious seconds. A worried May was the first to reach him.

"You all right?" May asked.

"I've got a burning sensation down my back," Williams told him.

"You going to make it?"


But in fact, Williams didn't know if he could play. At first, all he felt was pain. He kept still until Dr. Charles Jackson came onto the field. Then he moved his neck and his toes, squeezed the doctor's hand, and soon felt confident. Pooh-poohing the thought he might have to watch the rest from the side line, Williams said in his best country drawl, "Where I come from, you just throw a little dirt on it and keep playing."

Buoyed by the cheers when he got up and about, Williams jogged to the side line and immediately looked for a practice ball to loosen up with. "I went over to him and kind of looked in his eyes," Joe Gibbs said. "You can usually tell from the eyes."

Williams stayed in.

Then, as now, his eyes on the prize.