SAN DIEGO, FEB. 1 -- It was the play that well may have saved the Washington Redskins. And it was the biggest play of Terry Orr's life.

It was already 10-0 Denver in the first period of Super Bowl XXII when Ricky Sanders fumbled a kickoff at the Redskins 16-yard line. A massive pileup followed, and it looked as if the Broncos had recovered.

Had that happened, they would have been in excellent position to open up a 17-0 advantage. From that point, the game could have been a Denver rout instead of a 42-10 Washington rout.

But Orr snatched the ball away from a Broncos player under the mass of humanity. The official play-by-play of the game credited the recovery to Ravin Caldwell. But when the pile was unraveled, it was Orr with the ball.

"I turned around," he said this morning, sitting in a packed team bus waiting to be taken to the San Diego airport. "I didn't see any of our players. There were about three of them. I got up under one of them and wrestled the ball away from him.

"When I saw the ball hit the ground, a couple of them went in. But I was on top of it at the end. Anybody who ends up with it, it's your ball.

"Ravin Caldwell asked me if I had it. I told him 'yes' and he jumped on top of us just to secure the thing so nobody else could get to it. It seems like we wrestled with it for quite a while. All of us. Seems like we were down there for a long time."

It seemed like an eternity to the Redskins.

Anthony Jones, himself on the ground in the pileup, saw Orr, a 6-foot-3, 227-pound second-year player, wrestling away the ball. "I was next to him," said Jones.

"When you get to the bottom of the pile, everything's fair and Terry took it."

Then Jones added with a broad smile, "It's not who has it first, it's who has it last.

"I think they looked at it {on instant replay}, but it was such a big pile you couldn't tell who had it." 'Anything Goes'

NFL spokesman Joe Browne confirmed today that "it's basically every man for himself. When you have a big pileup like that, it takes a while for the official to identify who has the ball. The league is 68 years old and you can go back many, many times and see games with the ball being stolen without the official seeing it. It happens almost any Sunday during the season. Anything goes."

"Terry jumped in and saw the ball," said Mark Carlson, on injured reserve and standing on the sideline. "It's a battle, it's a free-for-all. But till they pull everybody apart, you're allowed to fight for it.

"Terry," added Carlson, "just wouldn't be denied."

The significance of the play was not lost on Orr.

"Now that the game is over," he said, "a couple of us on the team have talked about that. If they had gone in and scored it would have been 17-0. Then they would have been playing differently, and we would have been playing differently. Seventeen-nothing, we've got to score three times. Just being 10-0, we can just score twice and take the lead."

Richie Petitbon, the Redskins' defensive boss, described the recovery as "the big play of the game."

"We lose that," said Petitbon, "we're in real trouble."

Orr said that, when he "finally wrestled it away," he got two hands on the ball and wasn't letting go.

"We all know that going into a big game like this everybody has a chance to make a big play," he said. "I hope that was one of the bigger plays that I could contribute in Super Bowl XXII.

"I feel real good. We're the world champions and a lot of people doubted we were going to be there this year. But we stuck together through the strike as a team and we showed the world."

Staff writer Leonard Shapiro contributed to this report.