And now the ball is in Roger Goodell's court, properly inflated or not.
Bill Belichick chucked it there this afternoon by doing his best Claude Rains impression, professing to be shocked, shocked that the Patriots might have let the air out of 11 of the 12 footballs used in the AFC championship game Sunday. Why, the first he heard of it was Monday, Belichick said, in what for him was a stem-winder of a news conference. News to him, by golly. On and on.
(Eleven minutes, Belichick rambled along. It was like watching a mime suddenly break character and recite the Gettysburg Address in perfect Laurence Olivier diction).
The whole thing was virtuoso rendition of Cover Your Ass, right down to the part where Belichick pretty much threw his quarterback under the bus by saying Tom Brady would know more about football inflation, seeing how he likes his footballs "a certain way." It all but delivered Brady to the NFL hoosegow in a stretch limousine -- and if that didn't cast doubt on everything else Belichick said, it damn well should have.
Not that his veracity is really the issue here.
What's at issue is that an organization of which Belichick is the unquestioned leader has fallen under suspicion again, and he should at last have to answer for it. Regardless of whether he knew anything or not, the bottom line is it happened on his watch. And his watch already has more than one strike against it.
In the real world, two-time losers go to the clink. And that's what should happen here, beginning with the Super Bowl.
If it comes to light that the Patriots knowingly altered game equipment, Belichick needs to be sitting at home on his couch on Super Bowl Sunday. And he needs to be sitting on his couch for a long run of games thereafter, because there's precedent here, and the NFL needs to follow it.
If you're going to sit New Orleans coach Sean Payton for a year for something that wasn't explicitly in the rulebook (and with which he may not have had anything to do), then you need to sit Belichick for at least that long. Cheat me once (i.e.: Spygate), shame on you. Cheat me twice, shame on me -- and everyone, really, from the entire Patriot organization on down.
Here's the thing: When you mess with the integrity of the game, you mess with the integrity of the game. The entire game, from New England to San Diego. This isn't just about a minor rules infraction, or the Patriots' legacy, which has already been irreparably tainted. This is about the NFL's legacy. Do you let this slide for awhile because you don't want to mess with your annual ATM-on-steroids? Or do you act now?
The answer is obvious. You act now. If you don't -- if you decide to dawdle on this because, gosh darn it, the Patriots are in the Super Bowl -- people will not just wonder if the Patriots are on the square. They'll wonder if the entire league is.
That's why Roger needs to pick up his Hammer again. Pronto.
As someone once said: It's clobberin' time.