ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. -- When the final, definitive legend of Joe Montana is written, this would be a good chapter to skip.
The Hall of Fame-bound quarterback, who has been in four Super Bowls and won them all, never came close yesterday in his bid to qualify for No. 5.
Instead of the storybook ending we have come to expect of the Johnny Unitas of his day, this game ended with Montana's Kansas City Chiefs 17 points behind and their star sitting on the bench trying to clear the cobwebs out of his head.
The script called for Montana's 15th pro season to end with Our Hero smiling into a television camera and saying, "I'm going to Disney World." Instead, it ended with him not knowing whether he was coming or going.
The play that ended Montana's AFC championship quest ended on a 17-yard completion, his second-longest passing play of the day. Tight end Keith Cash got the ball, but the Bills got Montana an instant after he threw. All-Pro defensive end Bruce Smith hit him from behind, just as nose tackle Jeff Wright zeroed in from the side.
Wright caught him high -- helmet against helmet -- and Montana landed heavily, the side of his head bouncing off the artificial turf. The first-down sticks moved. Montana didn't, at least not for a while. His day, his season, his quest for a fifth Super Bowl were over.
Long after the game, Montana still couldn't remember much about the play, which probably was just as well.
"I remember right after it that my head hurt," he said, "and everything went white for a couple of seconds, and there was a real sharp pain in my head."
Frightening moments, to be sure. But yesterday's image of Joe Montana that will linger longest came late in the third period, when, during a timeout, the TV cameras zeroed in on him.
He was sitting motionless on the visiting bench, huddled inside a Kansas City jacket, still wearing his helmet, staring straight ahead, unblinking and, apparently, unaware of what he was seeing.
"I couldn't remember most of the third quarter -- what had just happened, let alone what was going on," he said. "I was trying to pay attention, [but] I couldn't even remember what the score was or how they'd gotten 20 points" in the first half.
For Montana, as well as his teammates, it was a first half worth forgetting. From the opening minutes, he resembled a 37-year-old quarterback with a bum elbow, not one of the premier big-game quarterbacks.
He missed on his first five passes and was 3-of-14 for a mere 33 yards until a quarterback's best friend, a prevent defense, enabled him to launch his only sustained drive, in the final two minutes of the half.
For that one, brief stretch, Montana was his old self, completing four in a row in one stretch on a 75-yard drive that reached the Buffalo 5.
Two passes later, Montana should have had a touchdown.
He threw over the middle to a slanting Kimble Anders, who reached in front of him, got both hands on the ball in full flight on the 2 . . . and failed to hang on. The ball bounced into the arms of safety Henry Jones.
Had Anders caught the ball, the Chiefs would have trailed by only seven points. In a sense, though, justice was served. As badly as Montana and his teammates were outplayed in first half, they didn't deserve to be that close.
It wasn't the elbow, banged up during last week's comeback win over the Oilers and badly swollen after the game, that prevented Montana from being his old, pinpoint self, Montana and Chiefs coach Marty Schottenheimer both said.
It was the freezing mist that fell through much of the day, turning the football into slippery icicles.
"It was hard to hold the ball," Schottenheimer said. "At the end of the second series, I went to the officials and asked them if they would cover the ball, which they did. But the ball was slick, particularly in that first half."
Somehow, though, it was slicker in Montana's hands than in Jim Kelly's. Or in the hands of the Chiefs' backup quarterback, Dave Krieg, for that matter.
"I couldn't seem to get a grip on the ball," Montana said. "There were times I had a guy open and I just couldn't get the ball to him."
There was, for example, the third-down pass he threw over the middle to Cash, 20 yards downfield, in the second quarter. Cash was about as open as a man can get, on the Chiefs' 40. But Montana's wobbly pass sailed too high.
"They did some stuff to stop us early," Montana said of the Bills, "but on the whole, it was more me, I think, than anything. It [the ball] was slick for me, but I kept going, 'Jim's not having a problem with it.' Dave [Krieg] and I were checking the balls on the sidelines."
No, the home team wasn't finding a way to get dry footballs into the game when Kelly was on the field and slick ones when Montana was in. It just seemed that way.
The bitter truth, for Montana worshipers, was that he was the second-best quarterback the Chiefs had on this day. It was Krieg, not Montana, who directed the one long (90 yards) TD drive the visitors mounted, completing two third-down passes and one fourth-down pass along the way.
Indeed, it was hard for anyone, save the most rabid Buffalo fan, not to feel a certain sadness in watching Montana rendered so ineffectual in a game this big. So much had been said and written about him in the last few days, you'd have thought nobody else was playing.
"All we've been hearing all week is Joe Montana, Joe Montana, Joe Montana," Bruce Smith said.
And that's much of what we'd be hearing during Super Bowl week if he had led the Chiefs to victory yesterday. But Montana isn't going to Atlanta this week, and he isn't going to Disney World next week. He's going home with a splitting headache.
Even living legends are human.