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MARINO. Elway. Kelly.

The three names have been linked throughout their pro football careers.

They are the standard bearers for the Class of '83, the most famous quarterback draft crop in NFL history. They are three of the league's most prolific passers ever. They are representatives of the AFC, unrequited in their quest for a Super Bowl championship.

How does Jim Kelly compare with his two quarterbacking rivals?

Most football observers agree he is a clear No. 3 behind Miami's Dan Marino and Denver's John Elway.

In a 1995 Sports Illustrated poll of the voters for the Pro Football Hall of Fame, Marino received 33 out of 33 votes, and Elway received 32 out of 33. Kelly got 15 yes votes for inclusion in the Hall, six maybes and 12 no votes. (It should be noted that numerous current voting members may not be on the Hall panel when Kelly becomes eligible for induction, so it's hard to predict his chances of enshrinement.)

Nevertheless, Kelly's numbers do not pale in comparison with Marino's and Elway's. In fact, they are comparable in many cases.

"Jim is in that class, without a doubt," said Ron Jaworski, former NFL quarterback and ESPN analyst. "I'd say Marino clearly is the best. Between John and Jim you could probably go either way on which one is No. 2. Jim was not as mechanically correct, not as pretty as some quarterbacks. But he always got the job done. He is an absolute fierce competitor. That's the one thing that stood out about him above anybody else."

"I think Dan Marino and John Elway will go down as two of the greatest ever," said Phil Simms, former Giants quarterback and NBC analyst. "But you certainly can say Jim's name in the same breath as the other two."

Marino is destined to be remembered as one of the greatest pure passers ever. Great arm strength, great accuracy, great touch, great form, quick release. Elway will be remembered for his superior arm and athleticism. Kelly, while he had a first-rate arm, will be remembered more for leadership and toughness.

"Jim Kelly will be remembered for both his toughness and his ability," Elway said. "But most of all, he will be remembered for his toughness, both physically and mentally."

Because Kelly started his pro career in the USFL, he has played three fewer NFL seasons than Elway and Marino, both of whom are 14-year veterans. Average Kelly's numbers out to 14 seasons, and he's in the vicinity of both of them.

Marino clearly has the best numbers of the three in almost every category, including yards, average gain per attempt, touchdown percentage, interception percentage and passer rating.

Kelly put up mostly better numbers than Elway. Their yardage totals are virtually identical (3,220 yards per season). But Kelly has a better completion percentage, better average gain per attempt, better touchdown percentage and better passer rating.

Elway, it should be noted, has triple the rushing yards of Kelly and a lower interception rate.

Head-to-head, Kelly was the clear winner.

Kelly's record in games against Marino is 14-8, including 3-0 in the playoffs. Kelly's record against Elway was 4-2.

One of the reasons Elway and Marino are looked upon more favorably than Kelly despite those records is Kelly generally played with superior talent.

Few would argue that the Bills had the better all-around team than Miami in each of those three playoff meetings and in most of Kelly's 11 years. And a large part of Elway's reputation rests with the fact he took three teams with mediocre offensive talent to the Super Bowl.

Neither Elway nor Marino ever had a running back as good as Thurman Thomas.

Elway's best back was journeyman Sammy Winder until Terrell Davis joined the Broncos last year. Marino never had a back gain 1,000 yards until Karim Abdul-Jabbar did so this season.

In Andre Reed, Kelly had a better receiver than Marino or Elway ever had. Marino's receivers earned a total of 10 Pro Bowl appearances. Kelly's earned eight, Elway's six.

Elway also has had clearly the poorest support on the offensive line, as well. His linemen have made only four Pro Bowl appearances in 14 seasons. Kelly's made 10 appearances in 11 seasons. Marino's have made 20 appearances in 14 seasons.

Further indication of Elway's mediocre blocking is his sack totals. Despite his mobility, he has been sacked an average of 33 times a season. Kelly was sacked an average of 29 times. Marino, with his lightning release, has been sacked just 15 times per season.

Elway is regarded as the master of the comeback, with 41 "fourth quarter heroics games." He has 31 games in which he drove the Broncos from behind in the fourth quarter to victory, one in which he drove them from behind to a tie and nine others in which he led them from a fourth-quarter tie to victory.

Marino has 32 games in which he brought the Dolphins from behind to win in the fourth quarter. He has 10 other games in which he engineered a winning drive to break a tie.

Kelly's numbers are close to those of Marino and Elway, considering he played three fewer seasons. He has 23 fourth-quarter comebacks and six other winning drives that broke a fourth-quarter tie. Former Dallas Hall of Famer Roger Staubach, famous for his comeback heroics, also finished his career with 23 fourth-quarter comebacks.

Of course, Elway has the more famous winning drives. Four of his winning drives came in playoff games, including the famous 98-yard march for the game-tying TD in the final five minutes of regulation of the '86 AFC title game against Cleveland. Denver won in overtime.

A lesser factor in comparing the three is weather.

"I don't think Jim ever has gotten the credit he deserved for being the kind of thrower he was up in Buffalo, which is such a tough place for a quarterback," Simms said.

"I've talked to Dan about it, and he's said, 'I throw it OK up there,' " Simms said. "But he doesn't have to throw it up there eight times a year and every day in practice. There's not much attention paid to that, but it's a big factor. I think Miami and Denver are two of the best places to throw the ball."

Another factor is longevity. Elway turns 37 in June. Marino turns 36 in September. Both are going relatively strong.

Kelly, who turns 37 on Feb. 14, slipped considerably his final year and is through.

Elway said last week Kelly's retirement has him thinking about his own retirement. He said it's probable he will return next season, but not definite.

"He's a contemporary," Elway said of Kelly. "I was close to the other guys, but I was a lot closer to Jimmy and Danny (Marino), especially the last three or four years. To see the first duck fall, there's definitely a little reality there."

Kelly was the third quarterback taken in the '83 draft. Elway was the first overall choice, Todd Blackledge the seventh, Kelly the 14th, Tony Eason the 15th, Ken O'Brien the 24th and Marino the 27th.

"I will miss watching him play," Marino said. "Our annual battles won't seem the same without the familiar No. 12 on the field."