I can't say that I'm surprised to see the Buffalo Bills in the Super Bowl. The truth is, I've known since last January that my beloved team would be the American Football Conference standard-bearer this season.

I know, I know. You're incredulous. You're thinking, "Who is this joker, and why does he expect me to believe that he knew the 'Bickering Bills' would get their act together?"

Simple enough. I'm a lifelong Bills fan who moved away from Buffalo a year ago this month.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not suggesting it was anything personal. I don't know any of the Bills, although a few of our mutually favored establishments figured in some of their now buried, off-the-field problems.

Still, what they did to each other last year is nothing compared to what they've done to me and countless others over the last 25.

In December 1966, I made the first of many pilgrimages to the hilltop in my neighborhood where War Memorial Stadium sat. (Most people called it The Rockpile; I never felt comfortable with that image; I regarded it as something of a shrine.) On this first visit, I watched the Bills whip the hapless Denver Broncos, 38-21, in a regular season finale that was in my 8-year-old eyes a tuneup for the beatings they'd be applying to the Kansas City Chiefs and Green Bay Packers en route to a third consecutive American Football League title and first-ever world championship.

Needless to say, I was wrong. The Chiefs won, 31-7. To this day, I get chills when I hear that score in any game. And to make matters worse, my mother went to the game with a ticket that I was certain had been set aside for me.

I somehow managed to forgive my mom and set about the business of waiting for next year -- which took 25 years to arrive.

Of course I couldn't see that the decline of what was the best team in the history of the AFL was well underway by the time I attended my first game.

The legendary Cookie Gilchrist, the Christian Okoye of his day (though Bills fans tend to prefer comparisons to Jim Brown), left after the 1964 season; quarterback Jack Kemp was well on his way to being voted out of the backfield and into Congress; and even the defense began to wither under the effects of injury and age.

By 1968, the Bills were able to muster but one win in a 14-game schedule and I'd become a regular on the splintery benches of War Memorial's east end zone, receiving a double dose of pain at home games. Ever able to look on the bright side -- it comes with the territory -- I steeled myself with the bizarre notion that the Bills' victory over the New York Jets, who went on to win the Super Bowl, proved that all of those losses were flukes.

There was, however, a silver lining, even for those among us who were somewhat less deluded: O.J. Simpson.

Most people outside of Buffalo view O.J.'s career after USC as one of those "the rest is history" deals. Bills lifers know better.

John Rauch is the anwser to two football trivia questions: Who preceded John Madden as coach of the Raiders and what Bills coach figured that Simpson's chief value to the Bills would be as a decoy? I'm not making this up!

This grand strategy yielded a total of eight victories over three seasons, a period highlighted by some of the greatest runs of Juice's illustrious career. These superhuman efforts, in many cases, were required to get back to the line of scrimmage. Seems we forgot to hire blockers for the all-too-infrequent employment of our wealthy, fast, agile young decoy.

I hadn't yet recognized my role in the Bills' travails, though it wasn't entirely lost on me that O.J.'s greatest years -- including his landmark 2,000-yard season -- came immediately after the team abandoned my neighborhood for Rich Stadium in remote Orchard Park in 1973.

By the time I'd acquired the means to make the journey there frequently, O.J. was gone and the Bills were a horror show again.

I finally recognized the problem a few years ago when a career move -- I'd call it a promotion except for the fact that it kept me from attending home games -- again distanced me from the team just as the current era of good football was dawning. I scanned Bills history and discovered that the problem was me, not them.

So I left town. And next year finally came.

The writer, a Buffalo native, is an editor on The Post's Metro desk.