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Win or lose, Patriots have sacrificed their legacy

We haven’t even gotten to Arizona yet and the mission is already lost. Mike Wilbon of ESPN is calling for the Patriots to vacate the Super Bowl, Calipari-style. Others are saying that Bill Belichick should be suspended. We are waiting to learn whether NFL commissioner Roger Goodell — a Robert Kraft frat brother — will punish Belichick and/or the Patriots before the Super Bowl.

The Patriots can win another championship Feb. 1 in Glendale, Ariz. Belichick can join Chuck Noll as the only coaches with four Lombardi Trophies, and Tom Brady can join Joe Montana and Terry Bradshaw as the only quarterbacks with four rings.


But the most important thing — the Patriot legacy — is lost. The Patriots and their fans will never win the “best ever” argument. Everything is tainted. Footballs (reportedly) have been doctored, headlines have been written, and opinions have been formed.

Locally, the Patriots are revered. Nationally, they are loathed and branded as cheaters, and once again they have handed the hammer to their legion of enemies.

We still don’t know where “Deflategate” lands. The NFL has yet to disclose its findings and announce penalties (if any) against the Patriots.

But the ballgame that matters is over. And the Patriots have lost.

At this hour, even if the Patriots are cleared of wrongdoing, they are the modern-day sports equivalent of Ronald Reagan’s Secretary of Labor, Ray Donovan, who asked, “Where do I go to get my reputation back?’’ after he was declared not guilty in a corruption case.

There doesn’t seem to be much dispute that footballs used by the Patriots in Sunday’s AFC Championship were doctored. By somebody.

The 12 footballs used by the Patriots were inspected by referees 2 hours and 15 minutes before the game and deemed within league standards. At halftime, the balls were inspected again, and 11 of 12 were found to be below the league limit of inflation.


This has been widely reported (starting with ESPN) and not disputed. If this is not true, the Patriots need to come forward to tell the world.

We all know the Patriots did not win Sunday’s game because they deflated the footballs to Tom Brady’s satisfaction. The Patriots could beat the Colts in a game played with Wiffle Balls, bowling balls, or medicine balls. The Patriots are a very good football team, possibly a Super Bowl championship team.

But were they breaking the rules? Again? Was this another case of Belichick seeing a rule he doesn’t like, going rogue, and making his own rules? Was this another example of the Patriots doing every little thing — even an illegal thing — to gain a competitive advantage?

The fanboy narrative is that “everybody does it.’’ You’re not trying if you’re not cheating. Folks are just jealous of the Patriots’ success.

Swell. But if you are a Patriots fan, you cannot be satisfied with this explanation. If you walk into your local 7-Eleven and see the back page of the New York Post screaming, “CHEATERS,’’ you cannot make it all go away by claiming jealousy.

Granted, it didn’t matter in Sunday’s game. But what about all the other games? If the Patriots are cheating, are they not cheating systematically?

Like Spygate, it’s not a one-game anecdote.

Did deflating footballs ever give the Patriots an illegal advantage in any of their close games? Did it help them win the division 11 times in 12 years? We know they don’t like to play on the road. In the playoffs. Ever. This great Patriot dynasty has not won a road playoff game in seven years.


Forget about the Colts game. Did a deflated ball make the playing field uneven in any games this year? Did it result in a home-field advantage that they would not have otherwise owned? How does the legion of Patriot toadies defend this?

Belichick has already said he did not know anything about the deflated balls until he was told about them Monday. Could this possibly be true?

The next 48 hours will be interesting. By any measure, this is a colossal embarrassment for Kraft. He loves the journey and the Klieg lights, but now his franchise has been tainted again. It matters greatly to the Patriots’ image-obsessed owner.

Kraft spent September sucking up to Goodell in the commissioner’s time of need. Now we’ll see what the commissioner does when the Patriots allegedly break the rules on the eve of the league’s showcase event.

Sunday in Foxborough was a great day. But everything since Sunday has been a disaster for the Patriots. Their Super Bowl quest is damaged. Even if they win.

Dan Shaughnessy can be reached at dshaughnessy@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @dan_shaughnessy.