ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. -- John Elway's middle screen went down in NFL playoff history yesterday. As a pass play that backfired, it now ranks with Joe Theismann's "Rocket pass" of Super Bowl infamy.
It was a middle screen pass that Elway threw for Steve Sewell in the third quarter that led to the Denver Broncos' undoing in the AFC championship game.
Buffalo nose tackle Jeff Wright tipped the pass, and Bills linebacker Carlton Bailey caught it and ran it in for an 11-yard touchdown.
The interception broke a scoreless tie and helped the Bills outlast the Broncos, 10-7, to earn a berth in Super Bowl XXVI against the Redskins in Minneapolis in two weeks.
It was the play of the game and the play of Bailey's career. And it was reminiscent of the interception Theismann, then of the Washington Redskins, threw just before halftime of Super Bowl XVIII in Tampa. Jack Squirek returned Theismann's ill-conceived "Rocket pass" for a touchdown and the Los Angeles Raiders routed the Redskins, 38-9.
"I was in the right place at the right time," said Bailey, a Baltimore native who played at Woodlawn High.
Bailey did some fancy stepping to get past Elway at the 5-yard line, then bowed in prayer in the end zone. Later, he thanked everyone involved, from God to Wright to teammate Shane Conlan.
Conlan, he said, suggested the two linebackers switch inside blitzes on the second-down play from the Denver 19 in the third quarter. Normally, Conlan rushes the passer in that blitz, but this time Bailey did.
Wright was rushing Elway, too, when he realized the middle screen was coming and threw up a hand to deflect the pass.
"It was a play they ran earlier in the game," Wright said. "They have a tendency to repeat a lot of plays. I just reacted."
Wright said he could have made the interception himself, but "when I saw Carlton in front of me, I let him have it."
Bailey said he would have taken some ribbing from his teammates had he been tackled by Elway. "No way the linebackers would allow me to come back in the locker room if John Elway tackled me," he said.
It was only Bailey's second interception in four years with the Bills, and it was easily the biggest play of his career. He didn't win a full-time starting job until this season, and has been overshadowed by his higher-profile teammates like Conlan, Darryl Talley, Bruce Smith and Cornelius Bennett.
"He's going to be one of the better-known linebackers in the league after he gets comfortable with being a starter all the time," Bennett said. "We have him doing so much on the field."
Said defensive end Leon Seals, "We're not a selfish team. We're not concerned with who's in what defense. We're very mature. Like Carlton. He's overshadowed on this team and he hasn't complained about it."
For the second straight game, the Bills' defense dominated a playoff opponent. Last week the Bills throttled Kansas City, 37-14. The back-to-back efforts have eased the sting of season-long criticism of the defense.
"The defense came together today," said cornerback Kirby Jackson, who made a critical fumble recovery after he stripped the ball loose from Sewell late in the game with Denver driving for the tying or go-ahead points. "We played well. It's one of those things . . defense wins championships. I guess this is what they mean."