Doug Flutie had a sinking feeling last week when he learned that Rob Johnson was going to start at quarterback in the Buffalo Bills' regular season finale against the Indianapolis Colts.

It was a common-sense move by Bills Coach Wade Phillips. Johnson, a promising, $5-million-a-year backup quarterback, had thrown only two passes this season, so he needed the work. And because the Bills had already clinched a playoff spot, the game was meaningless.

But the 37-year-old Flutie fretted that Phillips might have something else in mind.

"You never want to let the other guy play," Flutie said after learning that Phillips had decided to start Johnson in Buffalo's AFC first-round playoff game today at Tennessee. "That's why you play through injuries, that's why you keep going because you don't want a guy to show what he can do. You give someone just a little window of opportunity and they take advantage of it. Rob did that."

Johnson destroyed the Colts, completing 24 of 32 passes for 287 yards with two touchdowns and no interceptions. The next day Phillips announced he would have Johnson start against the Titans.

Flutie was one of the Cinderella stories of the 1998 season when he returned from eight years in the Canadian Football League to lead the Bills to the playoffs. He made the Pro Bowl and was rewarded with a four-year, $22 million contract extension.

He has not played as well this season--he was ranked 24th in the quarterback ratings system--but still led the Bills to 10 victories and was named as a Pro Bowl alternate.

In naming Johnson his starter for the playoffs, Phillips said bluntly: "I think this gives us the best opportunity to win this game."

The Bills have the NFL's No. 1-ranked defense, but Phillips apparently doesn't believe they can defeat the Titans unless they get more from an offense ranked 16th in scoring and 20th in passing.

At 6 feet 4, 212 pounds, Johnson, 26, is a prototypical NFL quarterback. He was the backup to Mark Brunell in Jacksonville his first three seasons in the league and got rave reviews from well-respected coaches who have passed through the Jaguars' organization, including Cleveland Coach Chris Palmer and Pittsburgh assistant Kevin Gilbride.

He only started one game in Jacksonville, but it was a beauty--22 of 28 for 344 yards in a victory over Baltimore. That game, plus the league-wide buzz about his great arm, led the Bills to give up first- and fourth-round draft choices for him before the 1998 season. Johnson injured a rib in the fifth game, allowing Flutie to take over a job he never surrendered.

"To me, it goes back to last year when Rob was banged up," Phillips said. "When Doug came in and played outstanding, you couldn't ignore that, so I made that decision because I thought it was the best for the team. This is the same decision. Doug played well for us, won 10 games for us and had a lot to do with those wins. And then Rob showed in my opinion that he can do things that it takes to win for us also. Rob has always been able to throw the football, we all knew that. But he's become a more complete quarterback, and that's the difference right now."

Titans Coach Jeff Fisher said: "It's hard to find a quarterback who played better in a game than Rob played against the Colts."

If nothing else, Johnson will once more give the Bills the threat of the deep pass they didn't have with Flutie and his weaker arm in the lineup. In late-season losses to the Jets and Giants, defenses stopped the Bills by stacking defenders at the line of scrimmage and forcing Flutie to throw the ball deep. Flutie was unable to make big plays in those games, and with Tennessee likely to employ a similar strategy, Phillips made a move.

But Flutie is the best scrambling quarterback in the NFL, rushing for 476 yards this season.

"You could have knocked me over with a feather when I heard" that Johnson would start, Buffalo offensive tackle Robert Hicks said.

If the Bills were surprised, they attempted to present a united front.

"He's a great quarterback, and he's been waiting his turn for a long time," said wide receiver Eric Moulds. "He hasn't said anything to be a detriment to the team. He's just sat back and waited his turn."

Game Day

Buffalo at Tennessee

Time, TV: 12:35 p.m., WJLA-7, WMAR-2.

Records: Bills 11-5, Titans 13-3. Line: Titans by 4A. This season: Did not play.

These teams combined for 24 wins, the most ever for two wild-card contestants. Buffalo Coach Wade Phillips stunned his team with the decision to start Rob Johnson at quarterback instead of Doug Flutie, whose mobility and creativity may be missed. The gambling Titans defense that led the NFL with 24 fumble recoveries and ranked third with 54 sacks, including an NFL-rookie record 14 by DE Jevon Kearse. No defense was better statistically than the Bills, however, who allowed an NFL-low 252.8 yards per game and now face a Titans offense that topped 40 points in each of its last two games. Tennessee QB Steve McNair finally found his rhythm in those games, throwing six touchdowns in his last five quarters after six straight games without a touchdown pass. The Titans carry a four-game winning streak into the playoffs, best among playoff teams, and are 8-0 at noisy Adelphia Coliseum this season.

AFC Playoffs

Buffalo at Tennessee, today, 12:35 p.m., WJLA-7, WMAR-2.

Miami at Seattle, Sunday, 4:05, WUSA-9, WJZ-13.

Buffalo, Miami or Tennessee at Jacksonville, Jan. 15, 12:35, WUSA-9, WJZ-13.

Buffalo, Seattle or Tennessee at Indianapolis, Jan. 16, 4:05, WUSA-9, WJZ-13.

AFC championship game, Jan. 23, Time TBA, WUSA-9, WJZ-13.

NFC Playoffs

Detroit at Washington, today, 4:05 p.m., WJLA-7, WMAR-2.

Dallas at Minnesota, Sunday, 12:35, WTTG-5, WBFF-45.

Dallas, Minnesota or Washington at Tampa Bay, Jan. 15, 4:15, WTTG-5, WBFF-45.

Dallas, Detroit or Minnesota at St. Louis, Jan. 16, 12:35, WTTG-5, WBFF-45.

NFC championship game, Jan. 23, Time TBA, WTTG-5, WBFF-45.

Super Bowl in Atlanta, Jan. 30, 6:18 kickoff, WJLA-7, WMAR-2.