-- We don't know for certain yet whether Bill Belichick had anything to do with the deflation of 11 of the 12 footballs the New England Patriots used in their trouncing of the Indianapolis Colts in the AFC Championship Game. In fact, we may never know.
Regardless of what the league determines, the Patriots' coach already has been declared guilty in the court of public opinion, his football brilliance superseded only by his football arrogance.
Consider this tweet from Hall of Famer Jerry Rice:
Rice has no skin in New England's game. He's not a former Raven or Colt, although he did play his final season in Seattle. He is a football legend with an impeccable résumé and he won't be the first or last to cast aspersions on the football team in Foxborough, Massachusetts.
On the surface, knowingly tampering with footballs just minutes before (or during?) the AFC Championship Game in which your team is heavily favored seems, in the words of former Patriots safety Rodney Harrison, "laughable.''
It is also incredibly audacious, stupid and paranoid.
It's almost as ludicrous as videotaping the defensive signals of opposing teams after the league sent a memo specifically forbidding the practice and warning there would be serious repercussions if the decree was ignored.
Spygate, Deflategate. Connect the dots and it appears to be more of the same, a haughty coach obsessed with winning who will do anything to get an edge -- and will gleefully tweak the league office in the process.
Therein lies Belichick's problem. A man who has made football his life's work, whose reverence for the game and its history is well-documented, has forever forfeited the benefit of the doubt when it comes to his own integrity. Earlier this month, 85-year-old Don Shula, the winningest coach in NFL history and the only one to oversee an undefeated season, with the Miami Dolphins in 1972, was asked about New England's coach. The congenial Shula replied: "Beli-cheat?"
It spoke volumes about the perception of New England's resident football genius. Shula is a man of character and credibility. His words hold weight, far more than a blustery Ray Lewis embarking on a rant dismissing Tom Brady's career because of the tuck rule. That made no sense and had no merit.
This deflation controversy is a different case altogether. The Colts became suspicious about the footballs and asked the referees to check them during the game. An investigation was launched, and there is tangible evidence the balls were inflated 2 pounds per square inch below what the league mandates.
Obviously there are myriad unanswered questions. Were the balls properly checked by the officials before the game? Who monitored the Patriots' footballs on the sideline? When, if at all, were the balls that appeared underinflated then discarded or re-inflated? Is there any tangible evidence that someone on New England's sideline tampered with the balls?
Let's dispatch one ridiculous notion: The deflated balls are not why the Patriots are playing in the Super Bowl next weekend. New England completely dismantled Indianapolis in -- as a certain coach likes to say -- every phase of the game.
In a perfect football world, the Patriots would be riding high in the wake of a surge of creativity that has set them apart in recent weeks. The Brady-to-Edelman-to-Amendola touchdown, the four-offensive-linemen formation and the touchdown pass to tackle Nate Solder were all evidence that New England had rediscovered its innovative, edgy persona.
Why can't the coach trust his players' talents and his own intellect and lean on the excellence of the organization he has so painstakingly built into a sustainable football juggernaut? It's like a prizefighter pummeling his opponent for six straight rounds, then feeling compelled to throw a sucker punch after the bell has sounded. Why? You had the fight won.
I'll say it again: There's no concrete evidence yet that Belichick or the Patriots did anything wrong. But even the most ardent New England fan has to concede that when 11 of the 12 balls are discovered to be deflated, that's a mighty interesting coincidence.
If the NFL finds the Patriots culpable (and that is still a big "if" at this point), it should lay the hammer down. If Belichick turns out to be a repeat offender in the skirting of the league rules, he should be suspended for the Super Bowl.
It's not about the deflated balls. It's not about how much of an advantage (if any) it provided the Patriots or Tom Brady.
It's about the integrity of the sport and the arrogance of a football coach who, if guilty, will have once again shown that he thinks he is bigger than the game.
For years the Patriots have fostered an "Us Against the World" mentality, whether real or manufactured (usually it was the latter). No one was better at inventing slights to motivate his team than Harrison, who is convinced Belichick and the Patriots will utilize the furor surrounding this controversy to their advantage.
"I can tell you, this is the last thing Seattle needs,'' Harrison said recently. "Those guys in that New England locker room are pumped. After all the hard work they've put in, after all they've accomplished, after all they've done, to have people doubt them?
"They're taking that stuff personally. They're fired up. Add the fact Seattle was favored in the Super Bowl, and look out.''
He's right. There's nothing like controversy to band a team together and provide them with the extra resolve to prove their detractors wrong.
But here's the hitch: Even if the Patriots beat the Seahawks 60-0 in Super Bowl XLIX, the win will be declared a tainted one by many. The noise will continue, and the chants of "Beli-cheat" will endure.
The coach probably won't care, but it's not just his legacy that will be stained. His players also are saddled with the perception that something far more unseemly than their preparation and sacrifice were the reasons for their success.
And that's the most deflating reality of all.