PHOENIX — The storm moved to the desert Monday night. It’s the Patriots against the world from this point forward.
Bob Kraft came out swinging when the Patriots first faced the global media in Arizona. The Patriots’ owner kicked off the team’s Super Bowl week by doing the same thing Bill Belichick did Saturday (minus the science). Kraft said he believed his team did “nothing inappropriate,’’ and there had been no “violation of NFL rules.’’ He said he had been assured by Belichick and Tom Brady that everything was on the level, adding, “I have never known them to lie to me.’’ He said the Patriots welcomed the league investigation.
Kraft characterized Deflategate as a crisis “driven by media leaks,’’ spoke of folks “jumping to conclusions,” and said that if the investigation does not disclose tampering, “I would expect and hope the league would apologize to our team and to Coach Belichick and Tom Brady for what they have had to endure.’’ He said, “I am disappointed in how this has been handled.’’
All this came just hours after a new story surfaced (Fox Sports) that the NFL has identified a person of interest: a Patriots locker room attendant who had possession of the game balls before the AFC Championship.
Wow. Game On. Welcome to Super Bowl XLIX.
We have gone from the ridiculous to the more ridiculous. The anticipation is greater than ever. The lines are drawn. Sides have been chosen. It is now the Patriots against the world and New England fans against fans everywhere else in the world.
Patriot Monday started with a pep rally just before noon in City Hall Plaza. The Patriots were madly cheered by frozen, storm-scared fans, all of whom had been energized and emboldened by Belichick’s Mona Lisa Vito deflation manifesto at Gillette on Saturday.
With that, the Patriots’ swagger was back. They are better and badder than ever. And they don’t care what anybody thinks, says, or writes. Flipping the bird at the league and a nation of skeptics, the Patriots trotted out Super Bowl champ Jermaine Wiggins for Monday’s send-off, and Wiggy whipped the loyal legions into a frenzy, telling them, “They hate us ’cause they ain’t us!’’
The defiant Patriots have emerged as perhaps the most polarizing team in the history of American sports. They are loved and revered at home; perceived as cheaters almost everywhere else.
The Foxborough fortress of secrecy and paranoia was cracking a bit late last week when — in the wake of information that the league was investigating the team for using deflated footballs in the AFC Championship game — Belichick and Brady submitted back-to-back “I know nothing” news conferences. Both local icons were uncharacteristically off their game in those moments. There was a lot of Sgt. Schultz, “I know nothing.’’ A lot of trembling trepidation.
But Bill brought all the greatness back on Saturday with his impromptu mid-afternoon science tutorial. Picking a dead moment when he knew there would be few reporters on hand (sort of like the old days of the Red Sox raising ticket prices on Friday night after Thanksgiving), Belichick came out swinging. He made his case, explained the deflation, and dared the league to produce evidence that the Patriots did anything wrong. He also said he was done talking about it. Coach Hoodie stuck to this Monday night in Phoenix. He stonewalled TMZ and friends, insisting it was all about Seattle from this point forward.
Brady was a little more open. He said it’s a challenging week, but spoke of the support he’s gotten since all hell broke loose.
That support was best demonstrated by Belichick Saturday when the coach said, “This team was the best team in the AFC in the regular season. We won two games in the playoffs against two good football teams. The best team in the postseason, that’s what this team is. I know that because I’ve been with them every day and I’m proud of this team.’’
That was Our Billy at his best. If the Patriots win the Super Bowl, and if the league produces no evidence the Patriots cheated, the preceding statement will go down as Belichick’s finest moment. It was a heartfelt speech that would make any player take a bullet for their leader. In one swoop, Belichick reminded his players that he’s got their backs and also regained the trust and support of some wayward Pats fans who were beginning to wonder about the legitimacy of the Patriots’ greatness.
Belichick and Kraft know that the best defense is a good offense. Within minutes of Belichick throwing down the hammer, Patriots fans were scolding critics, demanding apologies from anyone who questioned the Patriot Way. And now Kraft is doing the same thing. Bill and Bob say it isn’t so, therefore it isn’t so. How many kings, dictators, and elected leaders have enjoyed this kind of support from their people?
If the league comes up with bupkis, Kraft, Belichick, Brady, Wiggy, and Patriot Nation will indeed have a case against those who questioned the Patriot Way. If the Patriots are champions and did everything by the book, they have been unfairly targeted and characterized. Unfortunately, we’re probably not going to have answers to any of this until after the Lombardi trophy is handed out Sunday night. Think it was awkward when Pete Rozelle had to congratulate Al Davis? Wait until you see what happens if the Patriots win Sunday night. A Super Bowl of Awkward.
The Seahawks got to Arizona a full day ahead of the Patriots and Seattle motor-mouth Richard Sherman, god bless him, explained some of the popular thinking regarding the chances of NFL commissioner Roger Goodell sanctioning the Patriots for Deflategate.
“Will they be punished?’’ asked Sherman. “Probably not. Not as long as Robert Kraft and Roger Goodell are still taking pictures in their respective homes. [Goodell] was just at Kraft’s house last week before the AFC Championship. Talk about conflict of interest. As long as that happens, it won’t affect them at all.’’
Truly amazing. Only the Patriots could work in a world in which a portion of folks think New England is unfairly targeted by folks jealous of the Patriot success . . . while other critics believe the unholy alliance between Kraft and Goodell will produce a bag job investigation on par with the much-mocked Mueller Report.
Sorry, Patriots fans, but what was true Thursday is true today. Locally, this could wind up being the favorite Patriot team of all time, but nationally their legacy is tarnished . . . because of Spygate and this new investigation. If you want to make the case that they are the most unfairly maligned champions in history, knock yourself out. Perhaps the Patriots and their fans can use the hate to their advantage on Sunday.
The owner and the coach have challenged the NFL.
What a week. What a Super Bowl. Hard to believe the Patriots have been in Arizona for less than a day.