'Deflategate: Will Patriots be banned from the Super Bowl?

Once again, the New England Patriots are being accused of cheating. If the charges are true, this would be the second time in a decade the Patriots have violated NFL rules. Could a bigger punishment be looming for Belichick & Co. this time? 

Elise Amendola/AP
New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick watches from the sidelines during the first half of the NFL football AFC Championship game against the Indianapolis Colts on Sunday. Belichick now has to answer to charges of cheating again.

Will "deflategate" keep the New England Patriots from playing in the Super Bowl this year? 

That is one of many potential punishments being offered up, assuming the NFL investigation finds that the Patriots actually broke the rule.

ESPN's Chris Mortensen reported that 11 of the 12 footballs the Patriots used in their AFC Championship blowout of the Indianapolis Colts on Sunday were under inflated by one pound of air per square-inch. Both teams are required to provide 12 game balls with a psi between 12.5 and 13.5 for their offense to use during the game.

For any other team, the punishment for violating this rule might have been a fine and/or the loss of a draft pick. Why not New England?

The Patriots were fined $250,000 after the 2007 Spygate scandal and were docked a first-round draft pick, Head coach Bill Belichick was personally fined $500,000. Now, New England has become the league's first recidivist and many NFL observers want that punishment to be harsher.

Be it the Patriots, Belichick, the game's officials or some combination of all the above, and if Twitter is any measure of the Court of Public Opinion, Belichick and Tom Brady are to be hung by their toes.

Calls for punishment have ranged from Yahoo's Dan Wetzel proposing to penalize the Patriots multiple draft picks to ESPN's Michael Wilbon calling for the Patriots to be forced to "vacate" their Super Bowl appearance.

 “If you’re a cheater, and you’re a multiple time cheater, I would say to the New England Patriots, “You know what we’re going to do? If this is found to be true, like today, tomorrow, the next 72 hours, the next 3 days, you know what? You’re forfeiting your spot in the Super Bowl. We’re vacating it. Get out! You’re a cheater, you’re a lying franchise.”

Though the punishment is likely to fall somewhere in between these extremes, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell will be likely to act more forcefully than he did toward the Ray Rice domestic violence episode, when Mr. Goodell only suspended Rice for two games at the beginning of this season. 

NBC's Mike Florio reported that given the NFL's lack of credibility on dealing with off-field misbehavior, the NFL will likely crack down harder now on on-field incidents that could hurt the integrity of the game. 

Therefore, Goodell could come down heavy on Bellichick & Co. He may feel the need to send a message to Belichick for his propensity to push the limits of the rulebook. 

One possible punishment being suggested is to suspend Bellichick from the Super Bowl. It would send the message that no one is above the game – not even the most successful NFL coach in recent history. It would satisfy the Patriot bashers because no one has come to personify the Patriot Way other than the "Hooded One," and keeping him off the sideline during what is often the most-watched television event of the year in the US, would be a highly visible smack down.

However, there is no precedent for the league to suspend a team's head coach before the biggest game of the year. The New Orleans Saints head coach Sean Payton was suspended for all of the 2012 season after presiding over a bounty scandal – making payments to his players who injured members of the opposing team. But that suspension took place after many months of investigation. 

According to NBC Sports, the league said it would not mete out a punishment on the Patriots until after the season ends, as well as include a full disclosure of the findings, which suggests that another large fine and a couple less draft picks could lie in Belichick's future. An NFL source told The Washington Post that it would be unlikely that Belichick would be suspended for the big game, because it was too early to render a punishment.

In Belichick's defense, why didn't the NFL referees detect the deflation? Part of their official duties include testing the ball pressure prior to the game. They handled the ball after every offensive play. Worse, if they knew the balls in use were deflated, why didn't they do anything about it during the game?

Another argument in favor of keeping the Patriots in the Super Bowl is put forward by the Colts, themselves. They admit that the results would have been similar Ballghazi or no Ballghazi. 

Other players have raised questions about whether ball inflation is really consistently enforced throughout the league. Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers, has gone on record and said he prefers an over inflated ball. Super-bowl winning quarterback, Brad Johnson claimed that he spent $7,500 to have his Buccaneers' footballs scuffed up before they trounced the Oakland Raiders in Super Bowl XXXIII in 2003. 

Perhaps this will serve as a wake-up call for the league. One simple solution would be for the NFL officials to bring the game footballs for every game.

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