Throw the Patriots out of the Super Bowl

It turns out there’s a pesky little gremlin lurking around in the Patriots equipment room deflating footballs. Mystery solved. We should have known all along there was a logical explanation for the “Deflategate” scandal gripping the Sport Nation.

That’s pretty much what New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady and his coach Bill Belichick, would have us believe after their less-than illuminating press conferences yesterday. Both men claimed they were just as stumped as us over how exactly 11 out of 12 of the team’s footballs used AFC Championship game against Indianapolis had been illegally deflated below regulation specs.

“When I came in Monday morning, I was shocked to learn of the news reports about the footballs. I had no knowledge whatsoever of the situation,” said a famously crotchety Belichick. “I was completely totally unaware of anything.”

His quarterback, appearing equally puzzled, wanted everyone to know that he’s no cheater: “I would never do anything to break the rules. I believe in fair play. I have no knowledge of anything … no knowledge of any wrongdoing … I don’t know what happened.”

Really Tom? It’s hard to believe — almost laughable, really — that Brady, who is in his 15th NFL season with six trips to the Super Bowl and three Super Bowl wins, noticed nothing wrong. This is a guy who’s known to micromanage every aspect of the game, including the ball. And he’s on record saying he prefers a soft football. How could a pro like this notice nothing wrong?

The NFL, which according to ESPN reports, had been put on notice by the Colts going into the AFC Championship game that the Patriots may have used “soft balls” earlier in the season, said it is conducting a full investigation But with the Super Bowl less than two weeks away, we’ve heard nothing from them, nor apparently, has Brady, he said yesterday.

So it’s easy to understand why fans and even pro athletes are not buying Brady’s story:

“It’s obvious that Tom Brady had something to do with this,” said Hall of Fame QB Troy Aikman on his Dallas radio program, even before the Brady-Belichick press conferences. “So for the balls to be deflated, that doesn’t happen unless the quarterback wants that to happen, I can assure you of that. Now the question becomes: Did Bill Belichick know about it.”

The evidence is clear: Eleven of the team’s balls were illegally deflated and they didn’t get there by themselves. All the talk about cold weather being the culprit? Forget it. Not only was the temperature in the 50s on game day, but if weather was a factor then the Colts’ game balls would have also deflated. That didn’t happen.

Brady, always the polished pitchman, is playing the innocent victim role perfectly. Perhaps this is all just a conspiracy put out there by Patriots haters, Brady suggested yesterday. Good try but most reasonable people do not believe in conspiracy theories. And hopefully, even fewer people believe in invisible gremlins. So there must be another explanation.

That leaves the Deflategate spectacle in the hands of NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell. The scandal has provided plenty of jokes for late-night television and Twitter. But cheating in the NFL, a $9.5 billion a year industry with an overall market value of $46 billion for its 32 teams, is no laughing matter.

It’s been a rough year for the integrity of the game. Goodell has admittedly made botched calls over several cases involving domestic abuse, with the Ray Rice scandal being the most egregious. And this season has been littered with debatable play-calling in crucial game situations.

This is no time for stalled investigations. A ruling on Deflategate after the Super Bowl would be a huge letdown, and signal that cheating, no matter how blatant, is no big deal in the NFL. Goodell should act swiftly and announce sanctions against New England before the Super Bowl takes place in Phoenix on Feburary 1. Fans are not the only ones calling for the commissioner to clean this mess up.

Earlier this week, Nevada Sen. Dean Heller called on Goodell to restore the credibility of the game. “I am seeking decisive actions ensuring all teams are playing according to the rules,” Heller said in a statement. He recommended the league work with the NFL Players Association to resolve the issue ahead before the Super Bowl.

Let’s be clear: The Patriots are second-time offenders when it comes to cheating. Back in 2007, Belichick was fined the NFL maximum of $500,000 and the Patriots were ordered to pay $250,000 for spying on an opponent’s (The New York Jets) defensive signals. In the end, the team’s assistant video guy took the fall and was the only person fired in the incident. The Pats also lost a draft pick in 2008.

“This episode represents a calculated and deliberate attempt to avoid long-standing rules designed to encourage fair play and promote honest competition on the playing field,” Goodell said at the time in a letter to the Patriots.

Goodell got it right back then: He handed out the biggest fine ever for an NFL coach and he sent a clear message that cheating would not be tolerated, or excused away. This time around, despite the billions of dollars attached to the Super Bowl, Goodell needs to go further. At a minimum, the commissioner should:

— Disqualify the Patriots from the Super Bowl

— Strip the team’s AFC Championship title

— Fine, or suspend Belichick, who despite his claims to the contrary should have known about the deflated balls — and even if he didn’t, he’s ultimately responsible for everything that happens on the field.

And if it can reasonably be argued that Brady knew or should have known based on his NFL expertise that the football has been tampered with, then he too should face tough sanctions.

Since there’s no precedent for disqualifying a Super Bowl team, Goodell would have to put a plan in place. It makes sense to me that the next best AFC team would go instead of the Pats, which means the Colts would play.

And no, it doesn’t matter that New England beat Indy, 45-7. The score is not the point when a team cheats. And if winning — by any means necessary — is really all that matters these days in the NFL, then we might as well throw out the rule books and stop preaching about the “sanctity of the game.”

It’s 2015 and it seems the Patriots still think the rules don’t apply to them. They haven’t learned their lesson. This time around the commissioner must send an even stronger message so there’s no confusion.

The Patriots should be benched for Super Bowl XLIX.

(Note: An earlier version of this article listed the wrong opponent to the Patriots in the AFC Championship game.)

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