On a cold, breezy Monday night last October in Buffalo, Frank Reich showed he didn't even know how to celebrate like a starting quarterback. Forced into a game against the Rams because Jim Kelly had been injured, Reich threw two touchdown passes in the final three minutes, including the game-winner with 16 seconds left. Reich didn't raise both hands over his head triumphantly, he didn't shoot imaginary six-shooters. He ran around in a little tiny circle, sat on the bench, and sobbed.

Week after week Kelly, Montana, Simms, Marino, Moon, the Boomer and Everett get these chances. Backup quarterbacks get a couple of shots a career, if that. To get those chances in big games or the playoffs is even more uncommon. The odds against a heroic performance are sometimes so astronomical, the bookies in Vegas won't bite.

Earl Morrall, playing for Johnny Unitas in 1968, got the Colts to a Super Bowl. A few years later, subbing for Bob Griese, he kept the Dolphins undefeated. (As gracious a man as Don Shula is, not playing Morrall in the Super Bowl is inexplicable.) Doug Williams took over for Jay Schroeder late in 1988, and then turned in the best quarter in Super Bowl history.

Exactly 25 years ago this week, running back Tom Matte, subbing for Unitas and Gary Cuozzo, read the plays off his wristband and beat the Rams in a regular season game.

"The bookmakers wouldn't put it on the board," Matte said. "Don Shula and {offensive coordinator} Don McCafferty came up with an offense designed to take advantage of my capabilities." In a word, running: quarterback draws, quarterback traps, quarterback sprintouts. Matte, sick with the flu, beat the Rams, 20-17, to help the Colts get a playoff spot.

So, is there a hero in this year's bunch of backups? Certainly, there are enough of them. Reich, once again in relief of Kelly, will try to keep Buffalo's momentum going into the playoffs.

The Bears, already on life support, go into the playoffs with Mike Tomczak because Jim Harbaugh is out. A Giants' offense pressured to produce points even with Phil Simms now turns to Jeff Hostetler. Steve DeBerg, who's been replaced through his career by Montana, Elway, Steve Young and Vinnie Testaverde, finally found a team with no Golden Child, but now must yield to Steve Pelluer because of a finger injury. And the Packers, after searching 20 years for Bart Starr's successor, find him in Don Majkowski, who held out at the start and got hurt at the finish. Hello Anthony Dilweg, make that Blair Kiel.

Tomczak and Reich, at least, have started big games. The problems with Tomczak have been his own psyche and his proclivity for waiting until he has notified everybody in the stadium (including the opposing defense) which receiver he's looking at before throwing. Tomczak throws a much better deep ball than Harbaugh; that's about it. If you think Mike Ditka's new "Hey Dude, what's the fuss?" mellow-out act is permanent, wait till Tomczak throws his first pass over the middle into quintuple coverage.

Reich's biggest asset, on the other hand, is his efficiency. He started three games last season and won them all. Reich knows he's got the best receiver in the AFC (Andre Reed) and the best back in the AFC (Thurman Thomas). "I don't have to win this," Reich said. "I don't have to put that burden on myself." Williams has said the mental aspect of playing backup quarterback is the toughest part, and that's where Reich has an advantage over most backups.

The Giants have drafted a number of quarterbacks the last couple of seasons, as Simms has creeped into his mid-30s. They haven't found one they like, and now Hostetler has to be the answer. He is faster, and throws better than average. But Simms may be the most difficult quarterback to replace because he's also one of the toughest guys on the field and, along with LT, the team leader.

Pelluer's most memorable moment (for everyone except him) came a few years ago when he was knocked cold by Mike Singletary at the end of a sneak play. Guess what? If DeBerg can't come back by then, Pelluer gets Singletary and the Bears again at Soldier Field next week.

Whatever problems these backups may have, they at least know the plays. They take snaps (though not many) in practice every week. They know how to call the plays. In a 1965 playoff game against Dallas, Matte still was reading the plays off his wristband. Matte was a lot of things -- running back, defensive back, tight end, he could even line up at guard. But he hadn't been a quarterback since Ohio State.

Having thrown "no more than three or four passes," he said, in the previous week's loss to Green Bay, Matte recalls Shula walking into the locker room before the game to address the defense. "He told them, 'Guys, you may have your work cut out for you today. I'm gonna let Matte throw the football.' "

Matte remembers throwing two touchdown passes, maybe three. "We beat the Cowboys 35-3, I think," he said. "The wristband is in the Hall of Fame."