ATLANTA - Joe Namath summed it up as well as anyone. "I think Dallas will win," he said on the eve of Super Bowl XVIII. "I'd like to see Buffalo win, but I don't think they will."

Maybe Namath wouldn't have felt so sympathetic to the Buffalo Bills back when he was Broadway Joe; back before he had two knee transplants and became the national spokesman for Hexsall 500; back before the Bills had gone to three straight Super Bowls and gotten worse in each one - and now are preparing for trip No. 4.But time has made Namath more aware, more compassionate, more sensitive, toward sympathetic causes like the Bills - just like the rest of the America. Maybe everybody isn't hoping the Bills will win today, but can anyone be hoping they'll lose?

Granted, it's a commentary on how skewed society has become when it comes to sports, this notion that the Buffalo Bills football team, whose players average $750,000 a year in average salary (each), and who have won the AFC championship every year since the '90s began, should be pitied. But that's the way it is and it's not going to change. Besides, it's all relative. The glory in the climb up Everest isn't in the first 29,000 feet, it's in the last 28.

So far, the Bills have had trouble with those last 28 feet. They have become the poster child for frustration. The personification of Charlie Brown running toward the football while Lucy holds. Mother Theresa is their patron saint. A psychiatrist's couch is their logo.

Psychologically, they should have been out of the Super Bowl and into heavy therapy long ago - sometime between losing their first try in 1991 on a last-second missed field goal to the New York Giants and subsequent losses to the Washington Redskins and Cowboys. How they got back here this year is anybody's guess.

The crazy part, maybe literally, is that the Bills have always been able to function like their old selves the other 51 weeks of the year. This past season was more of the same. They dominated almost all of their games. They more or less cruised to the Super Bowl. They beat up on AFC and NFC foes alike - even Dallas in week two. It is a matter of record that when quarterback Jim Kelly has been the Bills starter over the past four seasons, the Bills are undefeated against NFC teams . . . if you don't count Super Bowls.

That's an amazing yet true statistic. The Kelly-led Bills are 10-0 dating back through the 1990 season in regular season games against the NFC. But in the Super Bowl the NFC champions have outscored them by a combined 109-60 in three straight losses.

In the process, the Bills have turned the Super Bowl into something as predictable as a soap opera - and it's not them who gets the girl. Even Bills fans realize this, as was illustrated by the "We're Back, Deal With It America" signs they unfurled in Rich Stadium last weekend as it became obvious they would deal successfully with Joe Montana and the Kansas City Chiefs in the AFC championship game.

Nobody's sure just why the Bills self destruct in the Big Game; why they play like the best football team on earth most other weeks and then play like the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the final week. They just do. All of a sudden they have two left feet. They get stage fright. They can't remember their lines. They can't remember their names. They provide monologue material for Jay Leno for the next six months.

One theory - probably the most popular - is that the Bills freeze up in the enormous national spotlight that accompanies the Super Bowl. They have a history of getting uptight in interviews, of showing little patience with the inane questions that are a part of the fabric of Super Bowl week. In short, they work themselves into a nervous twitch state by the time the game actually arrives, and then they aren't good for much of anything.

Unfortunately for the Bills, there's been more of that pregame impatience exhibited this year. Lots of temper tantrums interspersed by indignant looks.

But as Bills defensive end Mark Pike, a four-year Super Bowl veteran, said, "Who can blame us? It hurts to have lost the last three Super Bowls. At least I think people can identify with us. They see us, and they can see some things in their own lives. They have their ups and downs too, and sometimes life's not fair."

"I think people realize it takes a special group to get knocked down on the floor, get back up, get knocked down again and get back up again," Pike continued. "That's what you try to do in life, in business, in your marriage."

It's not hard to realize why most of America is rooting for the Bills not to lose again; why the prevailing hope is that they'll somehow get the anvil off their back. This is getting painful.

Who knows? The Bills' biggest negative - their inability to win the big one - could turn out to be their biggest asset. As Tex Schramm, the president emeritus of the Dallas Cowboys, said warningly this week, "You can only humiliate a person so long before they reach a point where they are dangerous."

Maybe the Bills have reached that point. Maybe they've been dominated for so long that they're now indomitable. Personally, I'm with Joe Namath. I hope so . . . but I don't think so.