If preliminary reports from National Football League officials are borne out in the full investigation, it certainly reflects poorly on the New England Patriots.

After a complaint from the Indianapolis Colts during Sunday's AFC Championship game, referees checked the footballs supplied by the Patriots for their own use on offense and found 11 of 12 of them underinflated by 2 pounds per square inch of pressure below league standards. Such a consistent result suggests not coincidence but rather a deliberate effort to alter the footballs to gain some advantage.

Some might call that "gamesmanship." Others would deem it "cheating."

Given the Patriots' history with "Spygate" -- in which the Patriots were caught using video to steal signals from opposing teams after league officials had ordered a stop to the practice -- management should have scrupulously avoided anything that might mark the team again with scandal.

But that is not the way of head coach Bill Belichick. His method is to push the rules to their limit -- and sometimes, a little more -- to give his team the edge.

Sometimes, this is genius, as were Belichick's "ineligible receiver" formations in the previous playoff game against the Ravens and against the Colts. The formations were uncommon -- some commentators said unprecedented -- yet all within the rules. They left the Baltimore defense baffled and produced a touchdown against the Colts. Confusing one's opponent is one of the basic objectives of any sport.

So what do the rules say about the inflation of footballs?

Each team must provide 12 game balls and backups. Each team uses its own balls while on offense. Teams are allowed to prepare the balls, within reason, to their quarterbacks' liking. The balls must be inflated to 12.5 to 13.5 pounds per square inch. The balls are checked by referees before the game, then left in the possession of the teams' equipment managers.

What advantage would an underinflated ball confer?

Some players say an underinflated ball is easier to throw and catch, particularly in wet conditions as in Sunday's game.

So is this a big deal?

That most certainly depends on whom one asks.

Balls are doctored in all manner of ways, legally and illegally, in virtually every sport that uses one. In football, the Patriots are not the only team accused of altering balls to their advantage. Aaron Rodgers of the Green Bay Packers has admitted he likes his footballs inflated beyond the legal limit. Brad Johnson, the quarterback who led the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to a Super Bowl win in 2003 says he paid people to rough up the game balls to his liking.

That others break the rules doesn't make it right. But this story is a big deal because, while we in New England love our Patriots, they are the team everyone else loves to hate. A 15-year record of dominance, including five prior Super Bowl appearances and three wins will do that.

The irony here is that the Patriots absolutely crushed the Colts in every aspect of the game, not just passing. If the Patriots did cheat, it didn't help them win the game. All it did was tarnish their reputation.

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