SAN DIEGO -- Super Bowl XXII began to tilt toward the Redskins late in the first quarter, when they still were behind by 10-0. All of a sudden, hunched over center, John Elway signaled for time.

The premier quarterback in football was confused, and so were the other Denver Broncos during what soon developed into the most stunning turnaround in the history of the NFL playoffs.

This quickly became another Super Snore to nearly everyone but Washingtonians, starting with Doug Williams cocking his arm early in the second quarter and ending with Clint Didier's feet hitting the ground with the fifth touchdown 13 minutes 13 seconds later.

The outcome, if not the 42-10 final score, was what the Redskins and their fans might have dreamed before the season but at almost no time since. Only in the last few weeks have the great expectations from being runner-up in the National Football Conference last season been realized.

"No one gave us a chance . . . we're the Rodney Dangerfield of the NFL," said Williams once more, this time while wearing a baseball cap that proclaimed his team Super Bowl champions.

Truth is, there was mighty anticipation for the Redskins once it became evident, six weeks into the season, that the defending champion Giants were going to be a non-factor.

The team managed to shovel itself into game-by-game holes, while everybody else in the division dug even deeper and more quickly. Nobody could run very well, quarterbacks were inconsistent, the defense seemed vulnerable.

These guys never seem to get terribly excited until disaster is a shaky step away. Atop a cliff, ready to tumble into a pool of embarrassment, they dig in and surge toward glory.

The most important game was no different from many lesser ones that preceded it. The only difference was the speed of the turnaround, and one of the characters.

Who would have imagined that rookie Timmy Smith would have a game for the ages in his first professional start? Surely, it will take considerable time to grasp the numbing fact that his 204 yards were more than John Riggins, Franco Harris and a few other immortals ever gained in the Super Bowl.

This surgically precise 35-point second quarter also was something that will be long savored, it being more awesome than anything the 17-0 Miami Dolphins, all of Vince Lombardi's Packers and every other grand team could generate.

The focal point was Williams, though he was quick -- and correct -- in emphasizing that at least two dozen others did their jobs as splendidly. "{The most valuable player award} could just as easily have gone to Timmy Smith," he said.

Or it could have gone to an offensive line that opened all those holes for Smith, that afforded Redskins receivers time to break free far downfield and Williams the protection to hit them.

In a burst of rare inspiration, the MVP award could have gone to a coach, Richie Petitbon, on behalf of himself and a defensive staff that rendered Elway helpless at times.

Williams won the award, and he should have. The quarterback always is the most valuable on a team, because if he fails so does everyone else. Four times Redskins broke free for certain touchdowns if Williams' arm was strong and true.

It was.

The irony of Williams kept building as the game wore on. Here was a man no other team especially cared for, last season or this, outpassing perhaps the most heralded prodigy at the position.

For a change, Elway was assuming a role long played by Williams, that of a wonderfully gifted quarterback trying to carry 44 others pretty much by himself. Perhaps only Williams could fully understand Elway's frustration.

Williams often has said he was smart enough to hitch himself to a very good team -- and this one in this one game was a whole lot better than the gang that beat Miami in Super Bowl XVII.

Exuding drama to the hilt, these Redskins managed to hold back their best effort until the final 45 minutes of their last game. They did not do this on purpose.

Williams also left us tingly, rising above root-canal work on a molar the day before and scary knee trouble in that staggering second quarter. Heroically, he pulled himself out of the dentist's chair and off the ground.

"No pain," he said.

He was not so lucky with that hyperflexed knee. At one point, the Redskins considered sending backup Jay Schroeder in a second time.

No way.

Williams knows what can happen when he surrenders too quickly to pain, for whatever useful effect it might have on the team. If he could do more than crawl, Williams was going to stay in the game.

The defensive coordinator of the Broncos, Joe Collier, called what Williams and the Redskins offense did "a nightmare." He added: "I've never seen anything like it."

Doug Williams and some underappreciated receivers had outperformed their more famous opposite numbers. "We may not have The Three Amigos," Williams said, "but they can play very well."

So could Williams. As the first black quarterback in the NFL championship game, he was under even more scrutiny this week than Elway. He handled that with grace and patience, and then performed as brilliantly as any of his most ardent admirers could have hoped.

One moment illustrates Williams this special day. In the third quarter, the animated scoreboard in San Diego Jack Murphy Stadium came alive with a feature titled: "Top QBs of 1987."

On the screen, and to heavy music, could be seen: Phil Simms, Joe Montana, Dan Marino, Bernie Kosar, Neil Lomax and Dave Krieg. Nowhere in the presentation was Williams.

At that very time, Williams was in command of a Super Bowl winner. For a blessed change, those other fellows were in his shadow.