Finally, mercifully, the morality play will end and a nice, firm football will be kicked and the NFL can stop making fools of everyone, at least temporarily.
The business of football is rarely about the actual game, but this particularly absurd Super Bowl might be the most compelling ever, stretching the boundaries of logic and hyperbole. And there's only one way to restore order and quell the noise: The Patriots have to beat the Seahawks in the most convincing way possible.
To preserve its reputation, New England has to spend the game spiking footballs in the end zone, legally. And I think that's exactly what will happen, with an angry Patriots team determined to prove it doesn't win with questionable tactics.
New England is a one-point favorite, but Seattle has shown signs of wear and has struggled to score. In some ways, the NFL is affording the Patriots the perfect clean slate to state their case, with no chance of equipment malfunction. Security surely will make the footballs the most closely guarded objects in the stadium, not counting Katy Perry's wardrobe.
Bill Belichick and Tom Brady were flustered when the overblown under-inflation story broke, and I assume they've shifted from flustered to fuming to furious. Unless the NFL investigation of Deflategate completely clears the Patriots, they know they'll have to do it themselves on the field.
The stakes have never been higher for a team, with legacies on the line. The Patriots have won three Super Bowls under Belichick and Brady — all by three points — but none since 2005, and none since the team was fined $750,000 in 2007 for Spygate.
So the perception grows that the Patriots push the limits and squeeze the footballs and unfairly trick defenses with (legal) shuffling of eligible receivers. Belichick's eligible-receiver innovation, which flummoxed the Ravens, was brilliant. But there have to be good guys and bad guys for the best theater, and in the NFL, the roles get blurred.
Game must entertain
Deflategate blew up partly because of the league's officiating controversies, which hatched the integrity debate. Lions fans might remember — for the rest of their lives — the fateful flag that was picked up in the playoff loss to the Cowboys. Then the Cowboys got whapped the next week when Dez Bryant's catch was overturned, rightly so, by the letter of the rule.
Rules rule in the NFL, right down to threatening a $500,000 fine on Marshawn Lynch if he didn't speak to the media and say, 29 consecutive times, he was only there to avoid the fine. You can't wear the wrong hat or the wrong shoes, and I understand why those rules exist, because the NFL gets millions for selling exclusivity to sponsors.
Lynch made a mockery of the mockery, and by Thursday had switched to scolding the media for engaging in the mockery. It was mostly harmless but not a good look for a game in need of a good look.
Controversy doesn't deflate popularity in the short term. But for integrity's sake and continued connection with fans, a league can't mess with the competitive nature of the game itself. That's why the Patriots and the officiating caused such a stir, and why an entertaining display of actual football Sunday is imperative.
Controvery too much
This season has been less about the game and more about the morality play: domestic violence, parental rights, union rights, freedom of speech, corporate cover-up, inconsistent rules in the workplace, ethics, sportsmanship, lying, cheating.
In the referendum on domestic violence, the league served as a reflection of society's cavalier approach to it. Roger Goodell blew it by suspending Ray Rice only two games, then spent months trying to fix it. Adrian Peterson's abusive parenting tactics sparked another important debate, and that's fine. But when a football league serves as the launching point for such sensitive issues, it ends up looking clueless or imperious.
The media is complicit, of course. We love controversies, such as the breathless report that a New England ball boy was "a person of interest," seen on a video carrying footballs into a bathroom and emerging 90 seconds later with no evidence he'd even washed his hands.
The Patriots thrashed the Colts, 45-7, and were dominant in the second half, after 11 of the 12 footballs were inflated to proper levels. I'm fairly confident Brady would've carved up the Colts tossing grapefruits, but do we want to hear the explanation for the discrepancy? Yes. Could it be as simple as teams always have handled footballs differently, without suggestions of competitive advantage? Certainly.
I doubt the investigation will find anything definitive, which is why the Patriots need to render their own explicit verdict. With Rob Gronkowski and LeGarrette Blount, they have uniquely physical ways to attack the stellar Seahawks defense. But this will come down to Brady, 37, who hasn't won a Super Bowl in 10 years. He could be the greatest quarterback of all time with a victory, or hear whispers in defeat that he was a piece of Belichick's elaborate puppetry act.
This Super Bowl isn't about the defending champion Seahawks, who needed an incredible rally to slip past the Packers. This is about the Patriots, the NFL's preeminent symbol of something. It's up to them to define what it is.