TAMPA, JAN. 24 -- The power, running back Thurman Thomas says, comes from the knees. Of course most running backs are taught to run through a tackle and lift the knees as if a sports car were strapped to each one. It's a good habit to get into for those occasions when a defensive lineman curls his body around the waist.

But with Thomas, it doesn't end with the knees. The power extends upward through his body like 1,000 volts -- through his thighs, then hips, back, shoulder pads and helmet. The power enables a man only 5 feet 10 and 200 pounds to bounce off moving mountains and keep running.

He can catch too.

Thomas had 1,829 yards rushing and receiving this year and 1,913 combined yards last year. He led the AFC in rushing this season with 1,297 yards. Against the New York Jets, he had the NFL's top rushing game, 214 yards.

With the possible exception of Chicago's Neal Anderson and Detroit's Barry Sanders, no back had a finer season.

But get this: He feels underappreciated.

"I don't think I have gotten all the respect I deserve," said Thomas, who has led the Bills in rushing his three years in the league. "I haven't worried about it though. It's not like I'm trying to show anyone up. I'm probably one of the most underrated players in the NFL."

His complex goes back to draft day, April 24, 1988. It could serve as a great case study for psychoanalysts everywhere.

Most experts expected Thomas, who played with Sanders at Oklahoma State, to be an early first-round pick. Thomas had said being an early pick would be something he would never forget, a milestone in his life.

The first round passed -- 27 players. And Thomas, the second all-time leading rusher in the Big Eight Conference, watching from his living room, was not one of them. He wasn't selected until the second round, where the surprised Bills made him the 40th player chosen.

"I remember how I was embarrassed on national televison," said Thomas. "It was a big thing for me and my family."

He even has a videotape of the event, and uses it as a motivational tool, playing it before the big games. Of course, he will watch it before Sunday's Super Bowl against the New York Giants.

"I usually watch it two days before certain games against certain teams," he said. "It has been my motivation since draft day. It will be my motivation until the day I retire."

Thomas can recite each back chosen before him by memory. The first-rounders were Stanford's Brad Muster (Chicago), Michigan State's Lorenzo White (Houston), UCLA's Gaston Green (Los Angeles Rams), Northwestern (La.) State's John Stephens (New England) and Pittsburgh's Craig "Ironhead" Heyward (New Orleans).

Chosen in the second round before Thomas were UNLV's Ickey Woods (Cincinnati) and TCU's Tony Jeffrey (Phoenix).

"I hope everyone that passed me is saying, 'Damn, why didn't I take that guy?' " said Thomas. "I hope the Rams regret it; I hope like hell they do. I gained more yards in one game than {Green} has in three years.

"Brad Muster? That one just stuck in my mind. . . . C'mon, I'm a hell of a lot better than Brad Muster."

He has been better than a lot of people. Thomas's skills as a runner and pass receiver are vital to the Bills' no-huddle offense. The Giants know this, and they definitely don't think he is underrated.

"Thurman Thomas is a complete running back out of the backfield," said Giants linebacker Gary Reasons. "I think the completeness of his game is what impresses me most. He catches the ball real well and runs up there tough for not being a big man. He runs with power, is quick and elusive, and does a lot of good things for them."

Said Thomas: "Our offense has really helped our defense. Once the opponent sees us score so quickly on our first drive, which we've done a lot lately, I think it gives our defense a psychological advantage. . . . People we play start thinking that we can go up and down the field all day."

Thomas added that he's "dedicating this game to Buffalo. Everyone says it's a dump. But we're dedicating this to the fans . . . they've waited a long time."

And maybe a Super Bowl victory would allow Thomas to forget that draft day.