ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. -- John Elway's latest Super Bowl bid ended yesterday with the Denver quarterback being helped from the interview room in Rich Stadium.
Elway had answered reporters' questions for several minutes following the 10-7 loss to Buffalo in the AFC championship game when he winced and doubled over.
"I'm getting kind of lightheaded," he said. "I think I've got to cut this off."
Elway was helped from the podium by two Denver staffers and escorted to the team bus. Later reports said the 31-year-old quarterback was simply worn out following the punishing contest.
Elway suffered a deep thigh bruise on a hit from Buffalo defensive end Leon Seals early in the second half. The Broncos' spiritual leader tried to keep playing, but coach Dan Reeves pulled him for his own protection with 12:40 left and the Broncos trailing, 7-0.
"John's so competitive, he's not going to come to me and say, 'Hey, take me out,' " Reeves said. "But our trainer said the thigh was really bothering John, and it got to a point where he couldn't get away from the rush, so I decided to make a change.
"I told him I was putting Gary [Kubiak, backup quarterback] in there. John said, 'Yeah, the leg is bothering me a whole lot.' I know he hated to come out, but I felt it was the only way to go."
"I didn't have the heart to take myself out," said Elway, who had a frustrating day, completing 11 of 21 passes for 121 yards and throwing the interception that resulted in the only Buffalo touchdown.
"I wanted to keep going until the leg got too tight. It was tightening up every series and it finally got to a point where I just couldn't go."
Elway limped around the Denver bench in his warmup jacket, watching Kubiak, his longtime caddy, rally the troops with a near-flawless fourth quarter.
Kubiak, who threw just five passes during the regular season, threw a dozen yesterday and completed 11 for 136 yards. He also ran three times for 22 yards, including the 3-yard touchdown that pulled Denver within three points with 1:43 remaining.
It was the old John Elway, fourth-quarter cavalry charge, except this time, without John Elway. This time it was Kubiak, playing in his last NFL game and running the show.
It had to be hard for Elway to stand and watch, knowing that 19 times in his career he has brought the Broncos from behind to win in the fourth quarter.
"There's probably not a more frustrating situation," Elway said. "I've never been in that situation before in a championship game.
"You've worked all year to get there and have a chance to go to the Super Bowl, then you're not able to play. That's tough.
"But hey, Gary did a fantastic job. He was great. The guy is always ready to play. Whenever he's called on, he does the job."
Elway said he felt more frustrated yesterday than he did after any of his three Super Bowl losses. The reason: In those losses, the Denver defense allowed 39, 42 and 55 points, respectively. Elway's offense didn't really have a fighting chance.
But yesterday, the Broncos' defense, ranked first in the AFC, stifled the explosive Buffalo attack, intercepting two Jim Kelly passes and shutting down halfback Thurman Thomas (26 carries, 72 yards).
All Denver needed was a little help from its offense, just a play here and there, and the Broncos could be en route to Super Bowl XXVI.