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Don't rely on Deflategate for perspective on Patriots' Super Bowl pursuit

Many have already circled the Super Bowl as the culmination of Tom Brady and the Patriots' revenge tour of the NFL, but let's not get carried away.

Let’s get a few things straight.

The New England Patriots are not heading to Super Bowl LI seeking justice. They are going to the Super Bowl to win the Super Bowl. If they do beat the Atlanta Falcons, it will prove nothing about Deflategate, just as their loss to the Denver Broncos in last year’s playoffs proved nothing about Deflategate. It would confirm what we already know: They have the smartest, craftiest coach in NFL history, Bill Belichick, and the most accomplished quarterback in history, Tom Brady.

The Patriots are not “extra motivated” for this Super Bowl because of Deflategate. Most of the players had absolutely no connection to it, and Belichick and Brady have been motivated for every football game in which they have ever participated. If they ever needed “extra motivation,” which is doubtful, it would not be for a Super Bowl. The all-time greats always find some reason for motivation; if Brady ever used his anger toward Roger Goodell to get fired up during an off-season workout, that is immaterial. If not for Goodell, Brady would have found something else.

The Patriots may or may not have illegally deflated footballs, but they absolutely, indisputably cheated for several years in the scandal known as Spygate. This engendered widespread mistrust within the NFL, for good reason.

The Patriots have not won primarily because of Spygate, Deflategate, Watergate or the pearly gates. They have won primarily because of the greatness of Belichick and Brady. If they followed every rule to the letter from the moment they arrived in New England, they still would have been wildly successful. Even the people in the NFL who loathe them acknowledge this.

We do not know the extent to which line-crossing and rule-breaking ever helped the Patriots, and we never will.

Roger Goodell does not hate the Patriots. He is not out to get the Patriots. Goodell is an extremely adept but overly self-assured politician. When he confronts a crisis, he tries to minimize damage, and he prioritizes outcomes over process.

When Spygate happened, Goodell did not want the Patriots’ three Super Bowl victories to that point to seem tarnished, because that would hurt the league. This is why he destroyed the tapes. When Deflategate happened, Goodell did not want to let the Patriots off, because he knew most teams in the league were suspicious of the Patriots and resentful of how Spygate was handled, and they wanted New England punished. This is why he was so determined to punish the Patriots.

Goodell did not have the evidence to convict Tom Brady. He convicted him anyway. Goodell had a legally negotiated right to do this, and he knew it all along.

Goodell did have some evidence against the Patriots: a team employee nicknamed “the Deflator” taking footballs into a bathroom before the 2015 AFC Championship Game and lying about it, plus a few other nuggets from the Wells Report. This only made the rest of the league more suspicious, and it is how Goodell justified his punishment of the Patriots and Brady. He overexerted his authority, because that is what he does.

Tom Brady’s Hall of Fame career is not a product of deflated footballs. If he ever asked for footballs to be deflated, which remains unclear and therefore unproven, he did so because he is a highly competitive athlete looking to maximize his chances of success, and he did not see this as a major transgression. And if—if, if, if—he ever did that, it should not radically alter anybody’s respect or admiration for Brady.

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Robert Kraft is not a completely innocent victim, and deep down, he knows it. He does not agree with Brady’s suspension, but he knows that the Patriots planted the roots of it with Spygate. His anger toward the league was real but qualified; he loves the job Goodell has done except for one ruling. Kraft has been a highly successful owner partly because he has navigated his way through the league’s halls of power and put the Patriots in position to win Super Bowls.

The Falcons are not white knights. They are an NFL team trying to beat another NFL team, and they are run in part by two executives, Thomas Dimitroff and Scott Pioli, who worked for the Patriots during Spygate.

The Super Bowl is not a matchup between right and wrong or good and evil—no matter who you think is right, wrong, good or evil. It’s a matchup of the two best teams in the NFL right now.

I’m glad we all agree on this.