TAMPA -- Rarely has a team won the Super Bowl with a career backup at quarterback. If the New York Giants, with reserve Jeff Hostetler in charge, beat the Buffalo Bills and star Jim Kelly Sunday, they will become one of the first teams to win with a lesser quarterback.

This Super Bowl probably will turn on only one issue: Can the Giants surmount their Hostetler Hurdle? Many hearts say "Yes," but history screams "No."

Backups and journeymen, tough guys and rookies -- anybody not stamped "Grade A Certified Star" -- usually have been eaten alive by The Game.

What you need is a Hall of Fame-type leader such as Joe Namath, Roger Staubach, Bart Starr, Bob Griese, Joe Montana or Terry Bradshaw. They won 15 Super Bowls.

Of course, the Super Bowl is not always won by the better quarterback. When passers of roughly equal ability meet, other factors often decide the game. But when a large disparity is indisputable, the star always has won.

Here are the 10 Super Bowls we might consider putting into the QB Gap category. Green Bay's Starr over Oakland's Daryle Lamonica. The Jets' Namath over the Colts' Earl Morrall. Kansas City's Len Dawson over Minnesota's Joe Kapp. Miami's Griese over the Redskins' gutty Billy Kilmer. The Cowboys' Staubach over Denver's Craig Morton. Pittsburgh's Bradshaw over the L.A. Rams' Vince Ferragamo. The Redskins' Joe Theismann over Miami's David Woodley. Chicago's Jim McMahon over New England's Tony Eason. We could quibble about the size of the gap, but the pattern is clear.

There is one possible exception to this QB Gap rule. Doug Williams beat John Elway. The feeling here, however, is Elway has never quite gotten to "great" while Williams (like tough Jim Plunkett, who won two Super Bowls) was pretty darn solid. Not that big an edge.

In any case, the Super Bowl has never before had a quarterback charisma chasm like this one. Hostetler must face comparison with the glamorous Kelly, king of the hurry-up offense, who threw 24 touchdown passes in 14 regular season games this year, then put his arm into high gear by leading the Bills to 44 and 51 points in playoff games.

Everybody here has nice things to say about Hostetler. He's so smart he was an academic all-American in college and was nominated for a Rhodes scholarship. He's so nice, friendly and quiet that he ended up marrying the daughter of the coach at his alma mater, West Virginia. He's so tough he was a high school all-American at linebacker and has played wide receiver and special teams for the Giants. He's so poised and careful of turnovers that New York is 6-0 in his career starts.

Even the Bills' Bruce Smith gives unsolicited testimonials. "I have the utmost respect for him," said Smith, second on the NFL's sack list. "In college {playing for Virginia Tech}, I hit him a shot that even I did not believe. Right in the chest, full speed. I never thought he'd get up. He staggered, got to his feet, fell down again, then came back in the game about three plays later and threw a touchdown pass."

What a story if Hostetler wins. However, here are the facts: Hostetler, a third-round draft choice, has been a Giant for seven years and has thrown eight scoring passes. He's played quarterback in 10 pro games. He has never had a 200-yard passing game or thrown for more than one touchdown in the NFL. He's nearly 30, but has barely left a mark.

Hostetler has the weakest credentials of any Super Bowl quarterback, with the possible exception of Miami rookie Woodley. The Bills don't want to anger the Giants by bad-mouthing the popular Hostetler. After all, they ended Simms's season themselves on Dec. 15, then almost shut down Hostetler (three points) to ice their 17-13 victory.

To hear the Bills and Giants talk, you'd think there was no difference between Simms, who has thrown for more than 30,000 yards, and Hostetler, who has tried 199 passes.

Part of this respect for Hostetler may be attributable to his considerable personal appeal. The stuff of football myth may be gathering itself around him. He's proud enough to say: "No, this is not a dream to me. I've always thought I could play. I've just never gotten a chance."

Hostetler is one victory away from a permanent place in sports folklore. The spare part has become the cog. He's already set the stage. In a 31-3 playoff victory over the Bears, his numbers were modest -- 112 yards passing, 43 rushing. But everything he did was right. Then, in New York's chilling 15-13 win over the 49ers, he seemed to do just enough to win, even though the Giants never scored a touchdown.

Could Hostetler underwhelm Buffalo? Are the Bills already overconfident? Both Andre Reed and Smith made jaws drop here with incredibly injudicious comments. Both have said they'd rather have faced San Francisco because there would have been more credit to be gained in beating the 49ers. You just don't say that about a 15-3 opponent.

When Simms limped to the sideline last month, Hostetler never dreamed he would be out for the season. "If you come out of this game in this {frigid} weather," Hostetler told Simms, "I'll kill you."

Little did Hostetler know the dimensions of the job before him -- especially in a game in which quarterback performance has so accurately predicted not only the winning team but the margin of victory. For instance, in 23 of 24 Super Bowls, the team with the better average gain per pass has won.

No quarterback in Super Bowl history ever has been asked to overcome so much.

History says it's never been done. But the heart still has its whispers.