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At 39, Tom Brady is as good as ever

Rex Ryan joked during his weekly Wednesday press conference that the Patriots had a new quarterback, someone the Bills hadn't dealt with earlier this month in their shutout win in Foxborough.

"He looks decent," Ryan said, rolling his eyes.

I asked Rex if he had ever seen a quarterback play as well as New England's Tom Brady has at the advanced age of 39.

"I think you could cut it off at, 'Have you ever seen a quarterback that good?'," Ryan said.

Evidently, this is one matter on which Rex and I can agree. I've contended for more than a decade that Brady is the best quarterback who ever played. It has been a contentious subject of debate over the years. But Brady has continued to build his case over the past few years, at a time when many felt he was entering his twilight.

Two years ago, Brady bristled when people talked about him achieving great things at this stage of his career. "What stage is that?" he asked. Clearly, he was perturbed by the notion that he was approaching an age when quarterbacks go into inevitable decline.

But Brady continues to defy the skeptics, performing at an elite level at an age when most top QBs have retired or spiraled into irrelevance. He has said he expects to play well into his 40s. Last year, on a Boston radio show, he said he could play for 10 more years. That would make him 48, which was George Blanda's age when he threw his last NFL pass.

"It just seems like he's gaining wisdom," said Bills defensive tackle Corbin Bryant. "He's not gaining age in his body. It seems like he's playing at an even higher level than he's ever played before."

The numbers bear it out. A little over two years ago, Brady was terrible in a Monday night blowout loss in Kansas City. Critics skewered him. They said he was done. Same with the Patriots. That was the night Pats head coach Bill Belichick gave terse answers in the post-game and kept saying it was "on to Cincinnati."

Since that night, Brady's passing statistics have been better than ever. In 31 regular-season games since that KC debacle, he has completed 65.6 percent of his passes for 9,092 yards and 73 touchdowns, with only 14 interceptions. Across the board, those numbers exceed his overall stats in his brilliant 17-year career. He won a fourth Super Bowl in an epic performance against Seattle.

This Sunday at New Era Field, Brady will attempt to beat the Bills for the 26th time and tie Brett Favre's NFL record for wins over a single team. He has lost to them twice in games that matter. The Bills are out to become the first AFC East team to sweep the Pats in the regular season since Brady became the starter in 2001.

Brady has been sensational in three games, all victories, since returning from his four-game suspension for underinflating football. He has completed 75.2 percent of his passes for 1,004 yards, with eight touchdowns and no picks. The Bills saw no evidence of geriatric decline on film this week.

"I haven't yet," said Kyle Williams. "I would be glad for him to get old and go away. Being on a different side of him all this time, you hate him because he's beat you so much. But you have to admire what he's done up to 39. He's a great competitor, a student of the game."

Brady is a supreme competitor who fought the league in the Deflategate fiasco before finally accepting the four-game ban. He spent much of his Wednesday conference call dodging the tough questions and praising everyone this side of Roger Goodell for supporting him in his inexorable march to Canton.

You know he has some powerful resentments about the suspension. But Brady won't betray a shred of bitterness, or admit that he's driven to win a fifth Super Bowl after being forced to sit out a month and shove the whole mess back in the commissioner's mug.

"My motivation is just to play well for my teammates, my coaches and my family," Brady said. "That's enough motivation for me. I want to go out and do a good job, because I know how hard my teammates and coaches work to put me in a position. They all trust me to do the right thing on the field, so I don't ever want to let them down. So that's where my motivation comes from."

His place in NFL history is another source of motivation. Brady knows the records. In the past, he spoke about John Elway being the oldest quarterback to win a Super Bowl at 38. Now it's Peyton Manning, who did it last year, two months before turning 40. Brady would need to win a fifth Bowl in 2017 or later to beat his old rival.

But neither of those two played at an equivalent level at this age. Manning was shot at 39. Elway retired after his 38-year-old season. So did Joe Montana, Dan Marino, Fran Tarkenton, Steve Young and Kurt Warner.

Only one quarterback, Brett Favre, ever won 10 or more games (total) after turning 39 and had a winning record. Favre had the best season ever by a 40-year-old when he threw for 4,202 yards and 32 TDs for the 12-4 Vikings in 2009.

Brady is on pace to become the greatest "old" quarterback in history. That assumes he stays healthy, but he has become a health and nutrition nut and believes that's the secret to his uncommon production this late in his career. Last March, he signed a two-year extension that takes him through the 2019 season, when he'll be 42.

"I'm not doubting him for one second," said Bills defensive back Nickell Robey-Coleman. "I congratulate him for that. I hope I can be fortunate enough to play until I'm 40 in the NFL. That's a huge accomplishment. That all goes to him staying healthy and taking care of his body and whatnot.

"But I'm not going to say he's God," Robey-Coleman said. "There's only one of those."

Informed of the news that he's not, in fact, the Creator, Brady said he respected Robey-Coleman and called him a "feisty, competitive player" who's having a great year. You're simply not getting anything remotely controversial out of Brady. A team guy to the end, he is well-practiced in Bill Belichick's art of saying nothing of substance.

Asked about playing at his best as he approached 40, Brady talked about his teammates and his family and friends and all the supporting cast who have allowed him to do the thing he loves best.

"I feel like I'm the luckiest guy in the world," Brady said, summoning images of  George Bailey running happily through the snow at the end of "It's A Wonderful Life."

Whatever bitterness he has, he's keeping to himself. Ryan and the Bills don't buy the notion that Brady returned from his suspension with a heightened sense of motivation and a burning desire to get revenge on the NFL. Why would the most driven guy in the game need more motivation?

"I don't think about it," Brady said when asked about resentments over DeflateGate. "I put everything into this game. That's where all my energy goes. I only have so much energy to put into the week. It's not focused on pre-game warmups or trash talk. It's about doing what my job is, and that's what I've tried to do over the years."

Why dwell on the past, when he has so much left to accomplish? Brady sounded like a kid who's just getting started.

"I'm having a lot of fun right now," he said. "It's been nice, coming back and being part of the team winning. It's fun. I don't know why I wouldn't choose to continue doing that if I had the opportunity. Hopefully, I can keep it going."

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