ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. -- It was toward the end of a victory over the Miami Dolphins three weeks ago when backup quarterback Frank Reich walked over to injured Jim Kelly on the sideline and said, "I can't wait to get this job back into your hands."

It wasn't that Reich didn't want to play; it's that he knows the best chance the Buffalo Bills have to wear Super Bowl rings is for Kelly to fashion them. Saturday Kelly hit the deep routes, the intermediate crossing patterns. He beat man-to-man coverage and zone. He suckered the Dolphins into matchups they didn't want to be in. He took off running on a gimpy left knee, causing his coaches and teammates to cringe.

In the snow, wearing a knee brace, not having played in nearly a month, Kelly completed 19 of 29 passes for a season-high 339 yards and three touchdowns. He ran five times for 37 yards. He didn't throw an interception.

"That's exactly why I said what I did about getting him the starting job back," Reich said. "What he did today, not many guys can do. I'm glad I didn't have to do what he did out there today, because frankly I'm not sure if I could have. He showed why he was the top-rated quarterback in the league this year."

The Bills are a team of Bruce Smith, of Cornelius Bennett, of Thurman Thomas, of Andre Reed and James Lofton. They can beat you with defense, 10-7; they can beat you with offense, 44-34, as Miami found out Saturday in snow-covered Rich Stadium. They are even capable of beating you without Kelly. But with him Buffalo may be unbeatable.

That is why the Bills put him back into the lineup Saturday, even though he wasn't medically cleared to play until Tuesday. Reich is 4-1 as a starter with the one blemish being a throwaway loss to the Redskins two weeks ago in RFK. But the Bills were so anxious to get Kelly back behind center you would have thought Mike Tomczak was waiting in the wings. "Once Tuesday night came," Bills Coach Marv Levy said, "unless there was a change in the direction of the wind, we were going to play him."

Or as Reed said: "You couldn't stop him from playing in this game. There's nothing anybody could say or do."

When Thomas made a one-handed snag of Kelly's first pass, a 20-yard floater on the first play from scrimmage, it sent a signal.

Kelly is a brash, brassy, do-as-I-say head knocker who at times has offended his teammates. Having toned down his act just enough off the field, he is even more respected on it. If the Bills' offense seemed jet-propelled against the Dolphins, it's because Kelly has come to realize this is his time. A month away from 31 years old, he may not have many more chances.

It seemed as if Kelly played every down angrily. He didn't take what the Dolphins gave him; he took what he wanted. "By Wednesday or so," Levy said, "Jim was no longer testing his knee, he was into the game plan."

It was apparent from the first series that Kelly knew the Dolphins' defensive tendencies. So did Reed, Lofton and Thomas. One little fact gave the Bills an early touchdown.

Kelly and Reed watched film in disbelief. The Dolphins had gotten into a habit of using safety Louis Oliver to cover receivers who lined up in the slot. "It must be that {cornerbacks} Tim McKyer and J.B. Brown weren't comfortable playing inside," Reed said with a shrug. "So they put the safety" on the receiver in the slot.

Some quarterbacks spot a mismatch and think, "Boy, I think we can take advantage of that." Kelly spots one and seems to say to himself (and the defense), "You must be kidding me, buddy. We'll eat that up."

So on the fifth play of the game, with Oliver standing opposite Reed, Kelly went for it. Reed burned Oliver for a 40-yard touchdown to make it 7-0.

Early in the second quarter, Kelly found Oliver trying to cover Reed again, and hit his leading receiver for 43 yards, setting up a Thomas touchdown run that made it 20-3. "You know Oliver's a free safety," Kelly said, "and he'll be a great one someday . . . already is. But . . . at times it doesn't matter who's covering Andre. If it's one-on-one, I'll take my chances with Andre."

After a while, it got to be a joke; safeties trying to cover Reed and Lofton, sometimes even when they didn't line up in the slot. If somebody other than Don Shula was coaching them, you'd wonder if the Dolphins had practiced all week. "That's obviously the matchup they wanted," a bewildered McKyer said. "Any time they got it, it was like, 'Green light!' "

It might not have been such a sin if the Dolphins had brought with them a living, breathing pass rush, or if Kelly's timing was off just a hair as you'd suspect it would be after missing a month. But as Kelly reminded Levy, it was his knee that had been injured, not his arm.

"I think the rest helped his arm," Levy said. "I asked him Tuesday how he felt and he said, 'My arm feels great, my arm is really live.' I said, 'Never mind your arm, how's your knee?' "

Kelly answered that question too, and at the most critical times. After the Dolphins had scored to get to 20-10, Kelly scrambled nine yards to keep a drive alive that ended in a touchdown pass to Lofton, making it 27-10. After Dan Marino lobbed a touchdown pass to guard-eligible Roy Foster to cut Buffalo's lead to 30-27, there was Kelly scrambling eight yards, then completing a fourth-and-two pass to tight end Keith McKeller. That drive would end in another touchdown, Thomas's five-yard run with 10 minutes to play, and break the Dolphins' backs.

"Yeah, I was surprised a couple of times when he ran," Reed said. "I didn't think he'd do that. He's very tenacious. He wanted to be a part of it."

Reich saw Kelly take off and reminded himself to stay ready in case Kelly jumped up limping. It never happened. "After Marvy's comment, that he could outrun Jim, I think Jim felt he had something to prove," Lofton cracked.