It's disheartening, really. The Patriots overcame so much adversity this season, but, as Alec Shane wrote so perfectly, the narrative has changed. New England cheated if they win, or they can't get over the hump if they don't.
This was a week for defining the legacies of Bill Belichick and Tom Brady, the exclamation point on Hall of Fame careers, the resounding return at the backside of their careers.
Instead we're talking about the pressure of air inside of footballs.
In reality, this incident is just a microcosm for the league as a whole: the added focus on the minutiae, with blatant disregard for player safety, and a rulebook that is applied ad hoc.
What is illegal contact on Brandon Browner is not illegal contact on anyone else. What is holding on defense is ignored when done by an offensive player.
What is a complete non-story when done by the league's likely MVP, or by another division winner, or a bottom feeder, suddenly becomes a center ring spectacle when the Patriots are at fault.
This isn't to absolve New England of blame, if they are found at fault. The argument that everyone does it (and they do) doesn't justify the act. Even if it's been done in the Super Bowl. There would have been no need for the Patriots to modify anything against the Colts, even as a Break-Glass-For-Emergency measure. Breaking the rules is always breaking the rules.
But let's not paint this as anything more than what the rulebook offers, with a minimum fine of $25,000 (roughly double the fine of wearing non-team issued cleats). This isn't held on par with recording the opposition's play calls from the sideline. It's not the same as issuing bounties and intentionally hurting a player. The reaction shouldn't be to direct the conversation at tarnished legacies; this is so much less than that.
The worst part is the impending doom cloud hovering over the franchise as they head into their Super Bowl week. They're at the mercy of a completely inept body, one that was unable to simply ask the Ravens if they had tapes of Ray Rice in the elevator, one that had no idea how to process the Adrian Peterson scenario, and one that set precedence by ignoring this exact situation in the past.
And they're expecting them to correctly apply advanced physics to the problem? No thank you.
If the Patriots are made an example of, then so be it; it'll just be justification to the typically flawed argument that the league is targeting New England. But don't let this incident take away from all of their accomplishments, past, present, and future.
So look forward to the Super Bowl. Look forward to resolution. Because this present team is personified by Browner and his illegal contact, and it's used to overcoming added scrutiny and made-up rules not bestowed upon other teams. And that's just the way it is.