ORCHARD PARK, N.Y., JAN. 19 -- A couple of weeks ago, when more than a few people began predicting the Buffalo Bills and Los Angeles Raiders would play in the AFC championship game, it seemed the Bills would be without quarterback Jim Kelly and the Raiders would have the increasingly unstoppable Bo Jackson.
The Bills and Raiders will indeed play for the AFC title at 12:35 p.m. Sunday at Rich Stadium. But if this game was once supposed to be a celebration of the rebirth of two franchises and a showcase for perhaps the most-skilled athlete of our time, it became something else after war broke out in the Persian Gulf at midweek.
Since then, events here have taken on a decidedly muted tone. A downtown pep rally for the Bills was canceled, and the circus atmosphere that typically surrounds this round of the NFL playoffs has been absent.
Commissioner Paul Tagliabue has said the game's kickoff could be delayed or postponed if the networks return to all-day coverage of the war, and it has been an especially trying week for Raiders guard Steve Wisniewski, whose brother Vince is an Air Force F-16 pilot.
Not even the game is the same. Jackson injured a hip in last week's 20-10 victory over Cincinnati and likely is done until baseball's spring training.
Meanwhile, Kelly will play. He has made an amazing recovery from a Dec. 15 knee injury and completed 19 of 29 passes for 339 yards and three touchdowns in last week's 44-34 victory over Miami.
Snow flurries and temperatures in the thirties are expected for kickoff, though the weather is expected to worsen throughout the afternoon, with colder temperatures and heavier snow in the forecast.
Still, Kelly and the Bills look all but unbeatable. He was the NFL's top-rated quarterback and the trigger man for a glittering array of offensive talent that scored an NFL-high 428 points this season.
Running back Thurman Thomas (1,829 total yards), wide receivers Andre Reed (71 catches) and James Lofton (35 catches), and a big, imposing offensive line -- as well as a defense led by all-world end Bruce Smith (19 sacks) -- give the Bills probably the AFC's best Super Bowl chance in years.
Yet, the Bills haven't yet taken the final step. They've won the AFC East three straight seasons, but were eliminated by the Bengals two years ago and the Browns last year.
It's an indication of the magic associated with the Raiders that they hadn't been in postseason play since 1985 and still are talked about as the club with more experience with pressure games.
There's a reason for that. The Raiders are trying to get into their fifth Super Bowl, having not played in one since defeating the Washington Redskins in January 1984.
Current Raiders Marcus Allen, Howie Long, Don Mosebar and Greg Townsend played on that championship team. That experience, the Raiders mystique, huge offensive and defensive lines and the fact that Allen gained 140 yards and looked like his frisky old self in relief of Jackson last week has given the Bills something to chew on.
"They have a number of players who have been a lot further than us," Smith said. "They have an advantage, and the fact we made the playoffs the last two years does not make a difference. But it's a known fact we've not been able to do it when it counted, and it counts now. It isn't promised to us next year we will get this far. So we have to take care of it now."
What the Raiders don't have is Jim Kelly. They have Jay Schroeder, who kept his job mostly because Al Davis was unable to complete a Bobby Hebert trade with the Saints. He has succeeded because the Raiders have kept the ball on the ground, had the AFC's second-ranked defense (behind Pittsburgh) and asked Schroeder to throw only occasionally.
His 334 passes are the fewest of any starting quarterback in the NFL and the Raiders passing game was ranked 23rd.
No Bill was more surprising last week than Kelly, who practiced just four times before picking up where he left off during a 24-touchdown, nine-interception regular season.
Only Houston's Warren Moon threw more touchdown passes and no one approached Kelly's 63 percent completion average or his 6.9 percent of passes thrown going for touchdowns.
"He ran, he scrambled, he came back from the center quickly, he planted and threw the ball," Bills Coach Marv Levy said. "We're very pleased he could come back that quickly."
And then there's Allen. If his Raiders do get to Super Bowl XXV next week in Tampa, Davis may say a small prayer for one of the trades he didn't make.
Allen, 30, spent most of training camp hearing rumors that he was about to be traded or released, and at various times the 49ers and others made pitches for him. But Davis gave Coach Art Shell the responsibility of attempting to make two front-line backs happy.
Shell has just one now, a player who may be the most popular of all the Raiders. "Marcus, I believe, is the heart of this team," Raiders nose guard Bob Golic said. "You almost overlook his ability to play football because the first thing you see is his ability as a leader, his desire for the game."
Two seasons ago, Allen played with a broken wrist, and in this season's opener, he asked that a gaping gash be closed over his right eye at halftime so he could see where he was running.
The game is at Rich Stadium, where the Bills are 9-0, because the Bills went 13-3 and the Raiders were 12-4. The difference in home-field advantage was Buffalo's 38-24 victory over the Raiders Oct. 7. The Bills scored 24 points in a six-minute span of the fourth quarter to win that one.
"They had us and we made some big plays on special teams and defense and took it away," Kelly said. "For three periods they were better than us, but we got them in the fourth."
Raiders safety Mike Harden said: "We felt like that was a game we let get away from us. We feel like we've got to take charge from the beginning and not let up."