ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. -- For four years, Carlton Bailey kept telling himself his time would come, that, if he persevered, he would shed his cloak of anonymity and make it big with the Buffalo Bills.
Yesterday, in the spotlight of the AFC championship game, the Bills linebacker finally made the big time.
Bailey's interception of a tipped John Elway pass and his 11-yard touchdown return propelled the Bills to a 10-7 victory over the Denver Broncos and into Super Bowl XXVI against the Washington Redskins.
The AFC championship game at Rich Stadium had been billed as a matchup of marquee quarterbacks -- Elway and Buffalo's Jim Kelly. But, in the end, it was a run of big plays from little-known defensive players such as Bailey, nose tackle Jeff Wright and cornerback Kirby Jackson that sent the Bills back to the Super Bowl for the second straight season.
On Jan. 26, at the Metrodome in Minneapolis, they will try to make amends for last year's 20-19 loss to the New York Giants.
"Last year, the Super Bowl lingered on our minds for four, five, six months," Kelly said. "Now, we have a chance to go back and get a second opportunity."
It is even sweeter, though, for Bailey, a Baltimore native who starred at Woodlawn High. He gained notice at Super Bowl XXV not for his football, but for his real life drama. His father, Sgt. Conway Bailey, was serving with the U.S. Army in the Persian Gulf conflict and couldn't attend the game.
This year, Sgt. Bailey, now in the Army Reserve and living in Baltimore, will have the chance to see his son in the Super Bowl.
"It bothered me a lot, the fact he wasn't there to see me achieve one of my dreams," Bailey said as the klieg lights closed in on the Bills' newest hero. "This year, he'll have that opportunity."
Fate intervened on Bailey's career and an improbable scoreless duel with six minutes left in the third quarter.
The Broncos faced second-and-10 from their 19-yard line after an Elway incompletion. In the huddle, inside linebacker Shane Conlan suggested that he and Bailey switch defensive assignments on the play, that Bailey take Conlan's inside blitz.
It was the perfect defense against the middle screen the Broncos had called. Wright and Bailey bull-rushed from the inside as Elway retreated to throw. At the last moment, Wright reached up to deflect Elway's pass.
The ball went straight into the air, and when it fell, it fell right into the hands of both Wright and Bailey. "I saw Carlton right in front of me, so I let him have it," Wright said.
Bailey made the interception at the 11, turned and raced for the end zone. He stepped smartly past a diving Elway at the 5 and rolled into the end zone.
"I was at the right place at the right time," said Bailey, who later thanked God, Wright and Conlan for their part in the play.
Of Elway's futile tackle attempt, he said: "No way the linebackers would allow me to come back in the locker room if John Elway tackled me."
Moments before the interception, Wright had urged the defensive backs to come up with an interception.
"I told the defensive backs we needed a pick, that we needed a defensive score because our offense was sputtering," Wright said.
Then, as the play unfolded, he recognized the middle screen. "It was a play they ran earlier in the game," he said. "They have a tendency to repeat a lot of plays. I just reacted."
Wright said it was a defensive player's dream he saw falling from the sky. "I can't sleep at night I dream about stuff like that so much," he said.
The Bills (15-3) were far from home, though. They needed a 44-yard field goal from Scott Norwood and a crucial fumble recovery by Jackson to hold off the charging Broncos (13-5).
Denver coach Dan Reeves pulled Elway 2 1/2 minutes into the fourth quarter after the quarterback complained of a right thigh bruise. Elway's replacement, Gary Kubiak, nearly engineered a comeback reminiscent of Denver's 26-24 victory over the Houston Oilers a week ago.
Completing 11 of 12 passes, Kubiak directed the Broncos' only scoring drive. Kubiak, who is retiring, took Denver 85 yards in eight plays and scored on a 3-yard run with 1:43 left to cut Buffalo's lead to 10-7.
When Denver's Steve Atwater recovered an onside kick at the Broncos' 49 moments later, Kubiak was flirting with overtime. He hit Steve Sewell with his first pass for a 7-yard gain as Jackson moved in for the tackle. "I was just thinking about making the tackle and letting the clock run a little," Jackson said.
The result was much better than that for Buffalo. Jackson, who had two interceptions in last week's 37-14 victory over the Kansas City Chiefs, stripped the ball from Sewell and recovered the fumble on the Buffalo 44.
The Broncos got the ball back with 17 seconds left and got off two desperation passes, but the game ended on a 20-yard pass play to Vance Johnson at the Denver 48.
The Bills defense, which struggled most of the season, dominated in both of the playoff games at Rich Stadium.
"All during the course of the week, you hear about Elway, Kelly and the whole offense," Kelly said. "And you didn't hear much about either defense. But we knew they were tough, and this was a defensive battle today."
It was a defensive battle that was swayed by Bailey, the Bills' unheralded, four-year veteran who only this season won a starting job. Asked how he feels about being overshadowed by such higher-profile teammates as Cornelius Bennett, Darryl Talley and Bruce Smith, Bailey sounded a note of patience.
"My attitude has been, my time is coming," he said. "For some of us, success happens very quickly in our careers. But, sooner or later, good things will happen if you keep working."