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Deflated footballs just latest corner Belichick's Pats accused of cutting

Did the Patriots really illegally deflate footballs in the AFC championship game, as the NFL is investigating? If any coach would try it, it’s Bill Belichick.

Did the Patriots really illegally deflate footballs in the AFC Championship Game, as the NFL is investigating? Well, put it this way: There have been a lot of unbelievable NFL stories this season.

This is not one of them.

This? This is totally believable. Around the NFL, people wait for stories like this to come out of New England. They wonder when Bill Belichick’s team will get nailed again. This is not as simple as saying, "Hey, they got caught for SpyGate!" It runs deeper than that.

The Patriots are suspected of cutting so many corners, their home field should be an oval. It starts in the parking lot, extends to the locker room, goes right to the field of play, and makes opponents look all over Gillette Stadium, wondering what Belichick will pull next.

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Let’s start with the allegation at hand, first reported by Bob Kravitz of WTHR in Indianapolis. Obviously, the Patriots did not whip the Colts because of the air in the football. The Colts were overmatched. But the question is not whether Belichick needed to cheat. It’s whether he did, and could.

Generally, the home team supplies footballs, but that’s no advantage, because the officials check them all before the game. The advantage begins after the game starts. The home team has ball boys (or girls) who monitor the balls on both sidelines during the game. Officials can’t do it, because they are officiating the game.

And since each team’s offense tends to use the balls from its own sideline, a team could easily deflate balls on its sideline, allowing for an easier grip and more catchable ball, without the other team ever catching on. In this case, Tom Brady could throw a slightly deflated ball without Andrew Luck ever touching that ball.

(Perhaps the biggest advantage would be deflating the special-teams balls, or “K-balls,” that the opponent uses, because obviously a deflated ball would not travel as far. But that would be harder to pull off.)

There are a number of ways to manipulate footballs. You can warm them, so they travel farther. (Ask golfers or home-run hitters how much that helps.) The point is, this is a big deal, and while it didn’t decide Sunday’s game, there are real reasons a coach might try this.

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And if any coach would try it, it’s Belichick. He has earned his reputation for doing anything to gain an advantage. There are well-founded whispers in the NFL that the underlings who supply towels in the visiting locker room sometimes run back to the home locker room to share what they heard.

The Patriots supposedly stopped videotaping opponents’ defensive signals when they got caught in 2007, but opponents wonder if they are still stealing them. Smart opposing coaches put locks on every entryway to the locker room, so nobody from the Patriots can walk in, "accidentally" grab a play sheet or two and "inadvertently" bring it back to the New England coaches.

Even before the ball-deflating allegations, Belichick skirted the rules in the playoffs. Just last week, he declared certain players "ineligible" and gained a bunch of yards with that formation in a tight win over the Ravens. He confidently said afterward that it was all legal. The NFL concurred.

Well, look closer. This is a pretty good window into how Belichick operates.

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It is customary for coaches to run usual trick plays past the league office during the week, to make sure everything is on the up-and-up. Belichick didn’t do that. Right before the game, he told referee Bill Vinovich he would declare certain players as ineligible receivers. This put Vinovich in the difficult position of deciding, with no notice, if he should tell the great Bill Belichick he was trying something illegal.

Technically, what Belichick suggested is legal. Vinovich OK’d it. But the key to the plan was what Belichick did not say. He did not say he would hurry up his offense when he declared certain receivers ineligible, giving the Ravens no time to adjust to the tactic. The Ravens barely had time to see who was eligible before the ball was snapped. The officials couldn’t even get into proper position. They allowed the ball to be snapped too quickly.

That was the whole point of the tactic. It was a circumvention of the rules. Look at it this way: Sometimes an offense goes to a no-huddle, hurry-up offense, hoping to wear out defensive players. But if the offense substitutes, the offense can’t hurry so much. The defense gets a chance to substitute, too. It’s only fair, right?

Well, that’s what the Patriots avoided against Baltimore. They switched their eligible receivers and gave Baltimore no time to adjust. The league officiating office might have sniffed this out with a few days’ notice, but Belichick counted on his ability to confuse and probably intimidate Vinovich.

Coaches are onto this trick now. That is why, no matter what the NFL’s rules committee does this spring, Belichick probably won’t use the tactic anymore. Refs won’t let the Pats declare receivers ineligible and hurry up like that again. But it doesn’t matter. Belichick won his way, and now he can look for another advantage.

Belichick prides himself on being a football historian, and a lot of this is only "legal" if you come from the old-time "if you ain’t cheating, you ain’t trying" school of ethics. That doesn’t make it right, or fair. Or even, if you want to get technical, legal. Belichick has such disdain for the league office that he seems to revel in beating the league as much as he enjoys beating his opponents.

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How ingrained is the culture? On one end of Gillette Stadium is a lighthouse, the stadium’s signature architectural feature. But if you sit behind the opposite end zone and look at the lighthouse, you will notice something else: An enormous television beyond the lighthouse, in the parking lot.

Officially, this allows people in the parking lot to watch TV. Is it a coincidence that you can see that TV from the Patriots’ sideline, but not from the opposing sideline, making it easier for the Patriots to watch replays and decide whether to throw the challenge flag?

Belichick can get away with a lot in the moment. The code of silence in New England is legendary, and almost comical -- Sunday night, a few players were wary of talking to me about getting together and drinking kava, a drink that is symbolic in Polynesian cultures. The drink is non-alcoholic, and it has nothing to do with football, but players understand: In New England, you don’t say nothin' about nothin'.

But over time, dirty laundry falls out. Players sign with other teams. Coaches take other jobs. They talk. Remember, the SpyGate scandal exploded because a former Patriots assistant, Eric Mangini, became the head coach with the Jets and ratted on Belichick.

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There is resentment of the Patriots in the NFL, and all that winning only partly explains it. Sometimes it’s subtle. Patriots owner Robert Kraft serves on the board of directors of Viacom. The chairman of that board is Sumner Redstone, who is also the chairman of the board of CBS. (CBS and Viacom were part of the same company but split in 2006.) Does Kraft secure preferable game times for his Patriots? Let’s just say it wouldn’t be hard to do.

Kraft is a close confidant and protector of commissioner Roger Goodell; in September, when the Ray Rice punch video leaked, and Goodell went into public relations overdrive, Kraft defended him on national television … on CBS, naturally. Cross Belichick and you cross Kraft. Cross Kraft and you risk the wrath of Goodell.

Maybe some of this is overstated. But the perception is real, and it is not totally unfounded.

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And of course, coaches wonder if the Patriots are still stealing signals. Belichick still insists he did nothing wrong. The great mystery of the whole SpyGate scandal was why Goodell destroyed the video evidence. It’s a trick that Goodell would never try today, because the country is onto his act. But back then, he was still selling himself as the Sheriff Commish, and his approval ratings were higher, and he could take draft picks away and still destroy the evidence to help Kraft -- protecting his protector, in essence. Goodell could get away with it then.

The ball-deflating allegations are difficult to prove, and without hard evidence the NFL probably doesn't want to embarrass one of its Super Bowl teams.

Are the Patriots favored sons? When defensive players get flagged for a helmet-to-knee hit on Tom Brady, Brady has been known to remind them: “They made that ----ing rule for me!” And it’s true: After safety Bernard Pollard injured Brady in 2008, the NFL did change its rules to protect its star quarterbacks.

These are your AFC champions: incredibly talented, expertly coached and very comfortable crossing lines that other franchises wouldn’t dare cross. Funny thing about the NFL: Everybody uses the same rulebook. Some just use it more "creatively" than others.