Buffalo Bills coach Marv Levy, one of the most articulate of NFL coaches, found a historical reference last week to fend off persistent questions about his team's outlook going into Sunday's Super Bowl.

Levy said he remembered as a boy listening to the buildup before a heavyweight championship bout between Joe Louis and a contender. The contender, he said, filled up about 10 minutes explaining his strategy and outlining what he intended to do to the champ."Then they asked Joe Louis," Levy said. "Louis said, `I'll be there and I'll be on time."'

Levy made the same promise for his team, which is scheduled to meet the New York Giants at Tampa Stadium Sunday in the 25th Super Bowl. In the shadow of war, the NFL planned to stage its biggest show despite the threat of the broadcast's being pre-empted by events in the Persian Gulf, and fears of a terrorist strike.

Every spectator who enters the 74,296-seat stadium will be searched with a metal scanning device, and every piece of electronic equipment carried by the thousands of reporters who cover the event will be X-rayed and examined. The area around the stadium has been sealed for several days, air traffic (including the trademark blimps) has been grounded, and more than 2,000 federal, state, local and private guards have combined to provide security for the game.

In this peculiar atmosphere, the teams representing two New York cities will meet in what ought to be one of the most evenly matched Super Bowls in recent history. Despite fears that the NFL's expanded playoff format would allow a lesser team to make the big game, both the Bills and the Giants sport 15-3 records, and each represents the cream of its division.

By now there has been so much analysis of these two teams that the outcome might as easily be determined by computer. But both the Bills and the Giants have proved this season that they are capable of rising to almost any occasion, and can win with surprise as well as consistency.

According to conventional wisdom, the pace set in the first quarter of Sunday's game ought to determine the outcome. If the Bills can establish their fast-paced, no-huddle passing game and score early, the Giants are doomed. But if the Giants can stop the quick attack early and force a slower, steadier pace, they have the advantage.

Bills quarterback Jim Kelly, receivers Andre Reed and James Lofton, and running back Thurman Thomas have been thecore of one of the most exciting offenses in football this season. Philadelphia fans will recall the 24 points Kelly ran up against the Eagles in the first quarter, working out of a hurry-up, no-huddle offense and passing with cunning accuracy to his three favorite targets. Last week Kelly et al. put on their biggest show yet, demolishing the Los Angeles Raiders, 51-3, in the AFC championship game.

"Quite obviously, when you're playing a scoring team like Buffalo, we have to play better defense in this game than their other two playoff opponents," Giants coach Bill Parcells said. "I don't think we can win a shootout game with Buffalo. I really don't."

The Giants' strength is their defense, which has allowed an average of only 13 points per game this season.

With the ferocious pass rush and rushing defense featuring linebackers Lawrence Taylor and Pepper Johnson, and a steady secondary that rarely gives up the kind of big plays that have been winning games all year for Buffalo, the Giants have a good chance of derailing the Bills' express-train offense, and forcing their upstate rival into playing the methodical, low-scoring, pounding football that has been the Giants' strength.

"What you saw the Bills do against the Raiders and so many other teams this season, the Giants won't let them do," Eagles coach Rich Kotite said. He said the Giants' defensive coordinator, Bill Belichick, "will find a way to shut that down" and "eliminate the big play."

Levy said he has tried to warn his players not to feel too cocky after last week's blowout.

"You're not going to have that type of thing occur very often," he said. "I hope we keep getting better. I hope we keep playing sound football."

By the numbers, the Giants ought to win if they can just play their kind of game. In a low-scoring contest, the Giants can exploit one of the Bills' defensive weaknesses by grinding away yards on the ground - Buffalo ranked 15th in the league against the run and gave up 113 yards per game rushing.

But the exciting thing about any sport is precisely how unpredictable it can be. When the Bills and the Giants last met, on Dec. 15 at Giants Stadium, the game went precisely as Parcells might have planned it. The Giants slowed down the Bills' passing threat (knocking Kelly out of the game late in the first half), and ground out 157 yards rushing - and lost, 17-13.