The great tragedy of the aftermath of the NFL's conference championship games is that while there's only one football game remaining in the entire season, the elongated schedule gives everyone in the sports world two full weeks with nothing else to talk about. In short: It's the perfect environment for a full-blown rules scandal to eat the sports world from the inside out.
Fortunately, we've seen enough Super Bowl bye weeks and general sports controversies to know how this will play out. So far, it's gone exactly according to plan.
Within hours of the New England Patriots' 45-7 win over the Indianapolis Colts in the AFC Championship Game on Sunday night, stories began to surface that the NFL was looking into irregularities with the footballs that were used during the game. Indy-based reporter Bob Kravitz reported that game officials were looking at the possibility that the balls were partially deflated, in clear violation of league rules. Since each offense supplies their own balls, in theory, any deflation would have given them an advantage in the passing game.
The next day, ESPN's Chris Mortensen reported that 11 of the 12 game balls tested by the league after the game were indeed inflated below the mandated air pressure level. Under the best of circumstances, a violation of such rules could result in heavy fines and the loss of future draft picks. In a game that decides which team plays in the Super Bowl, it's an Agatha Christie-level whodunit.
It doesn't help that the prime suspects are renowned the world over as dirty, dirty cheaters. In 2007, the Patriots were accused of videotaping another team's sideline signals, another clear violation of league rules. Head coach Bill Belichick was personally fined $500,000 for that incident, the largest allowable fine the league can impose on an individual. As the winners of three Super Bowls in four years, the 2007 controversy proved to sports fans weary of Boston's lofty perch atop the sports landscape that New England will do anything to win.
Faced with a scandal and no new details—the NFL investigation remains "ongoing"—fans and the media are left with the standard routine or responses, each more predictable than the last.
#DeflateGate quickly wins out over #Ballghazi.
First come the moralizers, who demand the ultimate punishments for the Patriots, and specifically, Belichick. (Drew Magary has a roundup of the best pearl-clutching over at Deadspin.) Bob Kravitz, who helped break the story, has demanded an immediate firing in the name of "honor" and "integrity." At the very least, "Belicheat" should be suspended from the Super Bowl. At worst: The whole team should be removed from the big game, per the instructions of CBS's Gregg Doyel. It's the only way someone will learn. Either way, their #legacy is #tarnished forever.
The "Everybody Does It" Defense:
Every team tampers with the footballs. Ask any Qb In the league, this is ridiculous!!— Matt Leinart (@MattLeinartQB) January 21, 2015
his fondness for overinflating game balls, blatantly pushing the bounds of what's permissable. Brad Johnson, whose Tampa Bay Buccaneers briefly interrupted New England's dynasty run at the beginning of the last decade, has openly admitted to bribing his way to made-to-order footballs when his team won the Super Bowl in 2002, a request his opponent apparently supported.
@SI_PeterKing Every Qb goes through the footballs days before game and handpick which ones they want!!!!!! They take air out or put air in!— Matt Leinart (@MattLeinartQB) January 21, 2015
For more insight on how ball inflation works, the media turns to behind-the-scenes figures for more information. For example, NBC News interviewed the ball boy ... for the Chicago Bears ... 11 years ago.
Then again, maybe the Patriots aren't really responsible. The head of the physics department at Boston College argues that it's theoretically possible that the balls were properly inflated, indoors, at room temperature, but then deflated naturally after being moved outside to the much colder playing conditions at Gillette Stadium. Without the precise meteorological details, we can never know the truth.
The "It Wouldn't Have Made Any Difference" Defense:
Like most of his teammates, Indianapolis tight end Dwayne Allen doesn't feel he was robbed of a Super Bowl opportunity. Soft footballs don't lead to five extra touchdowns, especially when both teams are using the same equipment.
New England's Super Bowl opponents from Seattle are similarly unconcerned.
On Thursday, Belichick finally addressed the controversy during a tense press conference, broadcast live by several networks. He attempted to deflate #DeflateGate by saying he'd never had relations with those footballs, and doesn't even really know how they get their air anyway. He can't vouch for his quarterback, but he's "told you everything I know."
"I've told you everything I know" is the new "It is what it is."— Richard Deitsch (@richarddeitsch) January 22, 2015
The Seahawks Cheated, Too:
In an effort to demonstrate that football in built on a culture of lawlessness, it was briefly proposed that Seattle, New England's upcoming opponent, also cheated their way to the Super Bowl, with an illegal formation on a pivotal onside kick play that was part of their stunning comeback over Green Bay. (Spoiler alert: It wasn't actually illegal, as those who actually read the rules quickly attested.)
Someone Thinks of the Children:
The entire saga may have finally peaked when Tom Brady, New England's golden boy quarterback and Prime Suspect No. 1, held his own press conference. In front of an eager audience on TV (and Twitter), Brady denied tampering with the balls, ignored a demand from a reporter to apologize to his fans, engaged in lengthy digressions about his ball pressure preferences, denied again that he mishandled the balls in anyway, wore a silly beanie cap, and then referenced ISIS. Fans understandably lost their minds, the assembled media members did not acquit their profession well, and there are still 10 more days left until the actual Super Bowl is played.
So how does it all end? Having seen plenty of rule-bending and public relations disasters in the world of sports, it's highly improbable that any punishment will be handed down to Brady, Belichick, or the Patriots before the Super Bowl. The only thing more embarrassing to the NFL than a conference champion made questionable by a rules fight is a Super Bowl made questionable by team playing at less than full strength. After an utterly disastrous season off the field, this latest ridiculousness seems a perfect ending to the season on the field.