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A new era, or more of the same?

On Sunday at 1 p.m., Tom Brady will play his first regular-season road game since the Deflategate scandal broke. I’m guessing most Buffalo Bills fans are cognizant of the fact.

It’s fitting that the event should occur at The Ralph, where New England’s quarterback has subjected people to such torment over the years. There’s no place in the NFL where Brady is as despised as in Buffalo, a city of good neighbors who make an exception in his case.

He has insulted your hotels, broken your hearts, beaten the Bills every way from here to Sunday – and Monday night, too – since taking over as Pats QB in 2001. I hate to inject politics into the discussion, but he likes Donald Trump for president, confirming his essentially shallow persona.

Brady’s career, which began with a season as Drew Bledsoe’s understudy in 2000, directly parallels the Bills’ 15-year playoff drought. For a decade and a half, Brady and Pats coach Bill Belichick have been the smug, self-satisfied reminder of Buffalo’s football misery, their chief nemesis.

Brady and Belichick have a knack for bringing out the worst in opponents, who find new and astounding ways to blow games. Remember the Bledsoe rollout, the McKelvin fumble, Jauron choking on the challenge flag? Just ask Pete Carroll, whose epic brain lock cost Seattle last year’s Super Bowl.

Rex Ryan called them the “hated Patriots.” The hate has been compounded by Spygate and Deflategate, which fueled Buffalo fans’ belief that there was something sinister about it all, that no team could own another for this long (26-4 under Belichick) without cheating.

Brady wriggled out of his four-game suspension for his role in deflating footballs last January. Bills fans must want to punch out a wall when they hear media types recount how sincere and believable the guy was in his testimony.

So finally, it’s on. I can only imagine the brutal reception Brady will get when he walks onto the field for warmups. Guinness World Records will be there to record the decibel level, so the fans will be squawking proud.

“It’s a great feeling when you shut everyone up by the fourth quarter and half of the stadium is cleared out,” Brady said Wednesday.

Well played, Tom. But you can’t blame Bills fans for feeling a righteous entitlement, a sense that the fates owe them one and the rivalry is about to become, well, a real rivalry.

They feel Brady has a good whuppin’ coming, and the Bills have the defense to do it. It’s a perfect confluence of circumstances, with Ryan here to confront Brady at a time when the Bills seem ready to make a serious run at the evil Pats in the AFC East.

The Pats can’t dominate them forever, can they? Last year, the Bills beat New England in a meaningless finale to finish within three games of the Pats. It was the first time they’d finished that close in the division since 2002.

Ryan has given the team and the town a new swagger. The coach is talking tough and so are the players, who admit they don’t like the Pats. Many of them said they’re glad Brady beat the rap and will be playing today. They want to beat the Pats at their best. A lot of fans feel the same.

“Well, I’ll be there,” Brady said. “I’ll be there Sunday afternoon, so they’ll get their wish.”

They got the best, all right – the best quarterback ever to play, a man with four Super Bowl rings. Be careful what you wish for. It would be great to beat Brady, but by 4 p.m. the fans might be wishing Jimmy Garoppolo had been under center instead.

Brady thrives on a challenge, and on the disdain of outsiders. In 2007, after Spygate broke, he had a career year and led the Pats to a 16-0 regular season. He says he intends to play into his 40s and perform at a high level for five more seasons.

He’s 38, but far from finished. Brady isn’t stumbling toward retirement, like Peyton Manning. Critics were writing him off after a Week Four loss in Kansas City a year ago (incidentally, when the Arrowhead crowd set the noise record that Bills fans will try to break today).

Then Rob Gronkowski came back and the Pats took off. Over the next 10 weeks, they averaged 36 points and 416 yards a game and cruised to the division title. Brady was as good as ever, and he was spectacular in the postseason.

Bills fans were wired for Brady’s visit a year ago, as you’ll recall. It was the first game after Terry Pegula was approved as the owner. Optimists felt it might be the day when the fortunes of the two franchise began to change.

The Bills could have taken over first place in the AFC East with a win. Instead, Brady lit up the Bills in a 37-22 victory. He threw the ball effectively downfield and looked 10 years younger. He soundly outplayed Kyle Orton.

Over the last 15 years, Brady has magnified the Bills’ most glaring need – a franchise QB of their own. Tyrod Taylor will become the 11th Bills quarterback to start a game against Brady. It has not gone well for the previous 10.

Taylor has started one game in the NFL. Brady has started 237, counting playoffs, and won 182. After one game, many Bills fans believe Taylor is their long-awaited franchise QB. We’ll see. Right now, the only thing Brady and Taylor have in common is they were sixth-round draft picks.

The Bills are constructed to win with defense and a strong running game. But at some point in today’s NFL, your quarterback needs to carry you on his back, to throw it 40-50 times in a big game when nothing else is working.

That’s what Brady did in last year’s playoffs. He threw 50 passes against the Ravens on a day when his defense was poor, his running game non-existent and his offensive line in shambles. He threw 50 times in the Super Bowl and shredded a great Seattle defense in the fourth quarter.

That was seven months ago. If Brady can play at a high level for two or three more years, the Bills better hope Taylor is the answer. Because they need more than a top defense to overtake the Pats in the division. They need a quarterback who can outduel the best.

Maybe the Bills will have their way today. The crowd and the pass rush will be a huge factor. Two of the worst games in Brady’s career came at The Ralph in September. But we’ve learned over the years that you don’t judge Brady and the Pats on September, but their play in late autumn and beyond.

A victory would give the Bills wins over last year’s AFC title game participants in the first two games. It would announce them as a serious contender in the conference. But the season is young, and it would be too early to place them on equal footing with a dynasty.

So have fun, be loud, get behind the D and break the Guinness record. It should be a memorable day. As Brady said, you got your wish. But remember, he’s the best of all time because he lives for these moments, too.


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