ORCHARD PARK, N.Y., JAN. 12 -- Eleven seconds after scoring the fourth-quarter touchdown that gave them some breathing room today, the Buffalo Bills made the play that allowed them to coast into the American Football Conference championship game.

A fumble recovered by their kicker set up a scoring pass play that pulled the Bills toward their 44-34 victory over a Miami Dolphins team surprisingly comfortable in nasty, northern weather.

Actually, only the offenses of both teams adapted to snow, sleet and a steady wind of about 14 miles per hour. A combined total of 923 yards and six touchdown passes -- three by Buffalo's Jim Kelly, who played with an injured knee -- suggested elements kinder than ones that caused Rich Stadium to resemble an enormous duck blind.

"The strangest combination of factors hindered the pass rush the most," said Coach Marv Levy, whose Bills host the winner of Sunday's Raiders-Bengals game for the AFC title. "The wind wasn't that bad -- and the snow wasn't blinding."

Each team lost just one fumble -- and there was more equality than the obvious.

Had their punt returner not fumbled with 1 minute 41 seconds to play in the first half, the Bills might have settled matters by intermission. But the Dolphins recovered and then scored, so it took Buffalo much longer.

Two plays after kicker Scott Norwood recovered a Dolphins fumble on a kickoff return, the Bills scored the touchdown that provided a 17-point working margin through most of the final quarter on a Kelly pass to Andre Reed.

Both teams were surprisingly free-wheeling, choosing not to punt on fourth-and-short situations a few times. The Bills were effective with a no-huddle offense they unveiled at midseason.

On a left knee not totally mended from ligament damage incurred Dec. 15, Kelly returned not only to play quarterback but at the exceptional level he had shown most of the season. Into the wind or with it, he completed 19 of 29 passes for 339 yards. He also ran five times for 37 yards.

"We tried to put pressure on him," said Dolphins Coach Don Shula. "We blitzed him; he killed us blitzing. When we stayed back, he had all day to throw. For not having played for a few weeks, the way he handled himself and handled the offense . . . was remarkable."

Kelly benefited from several difficult catches, most of them by James Lofton, who averaged 21 yards on seven receptions and scored a touchdown. With 122 yards and two touchdowns on four grabs, Reed was even more productive.

"In games like this," said Reed, "you pull stuff out that you might not think you have."

Miami's Dan Marino was more spotty than Kelly, becoming effective after an erratic first quarter and producing 323 yards and three touchdowns. Neither quarterback was sacked, but that's not why the NFL's top pass rusher, Buffalo's Bruce Smith, was angry.

"Every time we play that team," he said, "they don't feel we should win. A couple of their guys {guard Keith Sims and cornerback Tim McKyer} went on television and said Cornelius Bennett and I were soft, that they could run over us. And that they could single-block me.

"I told Keith {in the first quarter} that if you're going to talk trash, you'd better back it up."

Meanwhile, Kelly and the offense were hustling to a 13-3 lead. Kelly threw on the first play of the game -- and running back Thurman Thomas made a one-handed catch for a 20-yard gain. Four plays later Reed split two defenders en route to a 40-yard touchdown play.

Buffalo increased the lead to 20-3 before Mark Duper slipped by a couple of Bills after catching a short Marino pass and turning it into a 64-yard touchdown. Still, the Bills seemed certain to go into halftime with at least a 17-point lead.

Suddenly, that impression changed. Punt returner Al Edwards fumbled at the Buffalo 47, after a 17-yard run. Marino, on fourth and five, threw a wonderfully accurate 38-yard pass to Duper down the left sideline. Three plays later Marino faked a handoff and ran untouched across the goal line from two yards.

The Dolphins twice cut the margin to three points in the second half, the final time early in the fourth quarter on a two-yard touchdown pass from Marino to guard Roy Foster, lined up as an eligible receiver.

Foster celebrated with an excited dance. "I was just shaking," he said. "It was cold as hell and I was just trying to stay warm."

As it developed, the Bills got hot.

"We figured we could score anytime," said Thomas, who gained 117 yards on 32 carries. "That's how much confidence we had."

During a 73-yard drive that increased a three-point lead to 37-27, Kelly scrambled for eight yards on second and 10 and was hit hard as he went out of bounds. He hopped back up.

"You've got to do," said Kelly, "what you've got to do."

The drive also included a five-yard pass completion on fourth and two from the Miami 34. Thomas finished off the march by bulling over from five yards. Norwood made the extra point that provided a 37-27 lead, then he made the critical fumble recovery.

Linebacker Hal Garner nailed the Dolphins' Mark Logan on the kickoff, the ball popped loose and Norwood covered it at the Miami 29. On second down from the 26, Reed caught a short pass over the middle and spiked it onto snow-covered turf in the end zone.

Norwood ended what he started, kicking another extra point.