TAMPA, JAN. 22 -- Wide receiver James Lofton jokes that he would like to play professional football for about two more years. That he has played 13 with three different teams -- his latest squad being the AFC champion Buffalo Bills -- is because he is blessed with a body that can take an inordinate amount of physical abuse.

The way one of those padlocks in the commercial meets a sledgehammer and stands strong. That's James Lofton. Absorbing pounding after pounding after pounding and still coming back. That's James Lofton.

"James is on a mission to prove that your body tells you when to stop," said Buffalo receivers coach Nick Nicolau, "not some date on the calendar."

The Bills are lucky that the 34-year-old Lofton lets his body do the talking. He has been a positive influence on the team's offense this season, and Buffalo will likely go to their star against the New York Giants in the Super Bowl on Sunday.

They went to him during the second round of the playoffs against the Miami Dolphins, when Lofton caught seven passes for 149 yards and one touchdown. Against the Philadelphia Eagles on Dec. 2, Lofton had five catches for 174 yards and one touchdown.

This regular season Lofton caught 35 passes for 712 yards and four touchdowns. Should he have a repeat performance in 1991, it would leave him just 11 yards short of Steve Largent's all-time record for receiving yardage (13,089). Lofton also has 61 career touchdowns.

"The key to me staying in the league this long was that I had to get someone who believed in me long enough to throw me the ball," Lofton said, "and that has happened this year. {Quarterback Jim Kelly} has shown a lot of confidence in me. All of this is all the more satisfying because of the length of my career."

The Raiders released him in the 1989 preseason -- "Lord knows how that came about," Bills General Manager Bill Polian said, "I'm just glad it worked out for the team and James."

But still Lofton -- who had played with the Green Bay Packers under coaches Bart Starr and Forrest Gregg, and who was one of the best big play receivers of the last 20 years -- made his own phone calls to teams around the league. Lofton became his own agent.

"I never thought about retiring," he explained. "I'm one of those guys they'll have to run out of the locker room. I'll strap myself to something in the weight room when they come to get me."

Lofton and the Bills were a perfect match: Lofton needed a job and Buffalo needed depth. So Lofton was invited for a tryout.

"I'll be honest with you," Bills Coach Marv Levy said last week. "We brought four or five guys in to look at. James had been out for a while, but we wanted to look at him. He ran fast that day. Fastest of that group.

"He didn't catch the ball well, but we went with him because of his experience, intelligence and high character. We signed him as, 'the veteran wide receiver for backup.' He was insurance.

"But by the time the season ended, we realized this guy had years left, and they weren't as a backup. He was still a big-league receiver. We would not be having the year we're having without James."

Said Kelly: "The great thing about our offense is that we have so many weapons. James is one of those weapons. He's a great player."

Lofton said he holds no hard feelings against the teams that released him, in particular the Packers. "I don't have a lot of time to worry about that kind of stuff," he said. "I have to move forward.

"I didn't leave Green Bay with any animosity. I got to play for two Hall of Fame coaches {Starr and Gregg}, both of whom have been a big influence in my life. I've been blessed by having great coaches who have had a tremendous influence on me . . . including {former Raiders coach} Tom Flores and now Marv Levy."

He has done much in his 13-year career, including becoming the first Green Bay receiver to catch 100 passes in his first two seasons. He also has caught a touchdown pass in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s.

But the one thing Lofton has never been able to do is play in a Super Bowl. Of course, he relishes his first chance.

"Part of it is the luck of being with a team that has a chance to get to the Super Bowl," Lofton said. "And luck has been described as what happens when opportunity meets preparation. . . .

"It's hard to get here, and it's exciting. I hope our young players appreciate it. I'm 34, and I wish I had gotten here last year when I was younger."

But Lofton should know that youth, at least when it comes to him, has little to do with ability.