BUFFALO, JAN. 17 -- A man relatively close to Jim Kelly was asked what the Buffalo Bills' quarterback might be doing with his life if he weren't playing football.

"Jim would probably be tending bar back in East Brady, Pa., his hometown," said the man. "On Friday and Saturday nights he'd be butting heads with his brothers until they all bled. Later on he'd probably get in a fight in the parking lot and be enjoying the hell out of life."

Kelly is miles beyond the simple, hell-raising life of small-town Western Pennsylvania now.

A year into a contract that pays him about $3 million a year, give or take a few performance bonuses, Kelly is giving the Bills their money's worth. If the Los Angeles Raiders have bona fide hopes of scoring an upset over Buffalo in the AFC championship game in Rich Stadium Sunday, they must begin by stopping him.

Stopping Kelly, however, does not assure victory.

"We won the division championship and the home field advantage with Jim out of the lineup," points out Kent Hull, Buffalo's Pro Bowl center. "A year ago, we won three straight games during the time he was hurt. Two years ago, when Bruce Smith was suspended for the first four games of the season, we won all four games.

"This team has a lot of {strength}." So much strength, in fact, that if the Raiders do succeed in keeping Kelly in check they still have to deal with two other impact players on the Bills' offensive unit, running back Thurman Thomas and wide receiver Andre Reed.

Last week, when Buffalo defeated Miami, 44-34, in the playoff quarterfinals, Kelly passed for 339 yards, Thomas ran for 117 and Reed caught four passes for an average gain of 30 yards. Thomas and Reed each scored two touchdowns.

In his pre-kickoff remarks on NBC, game analyst Paul Maguire contended that the Bills' strategists "are making a big mistake in starting Kelly."

Maguire's reasoning was that Kelly was returning from rehabilitation for a torn ligament in his left knee, an injury that had kept him inactive since Dec. 15. Kelly resumed practice just five days before. Frank Reich, his understudy, played brilliantly in the showdown victory over the Dolphins for the division championship and home field advantage throughout the playoffs.

It turned out that the Buffalo strategists knew just what they were doing. Kelly took the Bills 76 yards in five plays for a touchdown after the opening kickoff. In fact, Buffalo had possession six times in the first half and scored on each.

Not only did Kelly pass, he ran and, on one occasion, was scheduled to catch a pass. He scrambled five times, repaired knee notwithstanding, for 37 yards, all of it vital.

In the second quarter, Thomas took a handoff, ran to his right and turned back, intending to pass to Kelly, whom he found covered. That aborted play, which ended up losing three yards, is called "skillet left." The name is a takeoff on one of Kelly's nicknames, "Skillet Hands," a half-derisive, half-affectionate salute to his receiving skills.

His teammates, some of whom once resented him, now view him with varying degrees of respect and, in some cases, amusement.

"Kelly thinks he's the toughest, the best-looking, the fastest, the best athlete on the team," says Fred Smerlas, the ex-Bills nose tackle now with the San Francisco 49ers.

"He's a hammerhead but he's a winner."

One of the six quarterbacks selected in the first round of the famous draft of 1983 -- the others were Dan Marino, John Elway, Tony Eason, Ken O'Brien and Todd Blackledge -- Kelly was the last to gain some sort of NFL notoriety because he spurned the Bills to sign with the Houston Gamblers of the defunct USFL.

Even then, football cognoscenti recognized his talent. In a July 1985 article in TV Guide, George Allen rated Kelly, still a Gambler, the second-best quarterback in pro football. Allen ranked only Joe Montana of San Francisco ahead of him.

Allen recognized Kelly's ability early, but it took the Bills an agonizing amount of time to appreciate fully how much Thomas could do for them.

Buffalo's relationship with Thomas had a great beginning. He was followed by an ESPN camera crew throughout the first round of the 1988 draft. As the round dwindled to the last two or three picks, Thomas had fallen asleep. The camera crew packed up and left.

Thomas ran for 4,595 yards and scored 43 touchdowns during his career at Oklahoma State, keeping Barry Sanders on the bench in the bargain. But he had hurt a knee in his junior year in a pickup basketball game. The rest of the NFL was leery of investing first-round money in him.

The Bills were in no position to quibble. They had traded away their first-round pick in the three-team trade that brought them prize linebacker Cornelius Bennett. Besides, their medical staff was convinced Thomas's knee would be fine; he was picked in the second round.

He became an immediate starter in a season in which the Bills won 12 games. In a playoff victory over Houston, he averaged more than 10 yards on seven carries.

The strategists' mistake came in the AFC championship loss to Cincinnati. He touched the ball only four times.

A year ago, when Buffalo lost a 34-30 playoff thriller to Cleveland, he caught 13 passes for 150 yards, although he rushed only 27 yards.

"I know the NFL doesn't keep such records," said Bud Carson, then the Browns' coach, "but that had to be some sort of a record for yards gained running with the ball after the catch."

Reed came out of little Kutztown (Pa.) State to became a regular selection for the Pro Bowl starting in 1987. He became even more efficient this season when James Lofton, 34, was melded into the offense and the Bills committed to the no-huddle offense.

Last week the Dolphins, confronted by the no-huddle, had to cover Reed with safety Louis Oliver because they often didn't have time to substitute sophisticated pass-defense packages. On the fifth play of the game, Reed ran a crossing pattern, caught Kelly's pass on the Dolphins 30-yard line and then ran between Oliver and cornerback Tim McKyer to complete a 40-yard touchdown play.

"Rip" is the operative verb when describing many of Reed's runs after the catch. One of the faster receivers in the NFL, he built himself into one of the strongest by spending his summers running up and down steep hills near his parents' Allentown, Pa., home. Consequently, Reed is no smurf in the open field. Arm tackles are useless.

His two touchdowns last week gave him four in as many post-season games. He also has two 100-plus yardage games and a 91-yarder. Last year he decided a 47-41 overtime victory over the Houston Oilers in the Astrodome with a tackle-breaking 28-yard collaboration with Kelly.

The Raiders have a troika full of worries.