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Let the NFL's air out

Professional sport being a gentlemanly pursuit in which participants would surely step forward at the slightest possibility that even the most minor of rules had been bent, let alone broken, it's difficult to imagine anyone associated with the New England Patriots had a hand in deflating the footballs used in the AFC Championship game against the Indianapolis Colts last weekend.

Nah, just joking. Seriously, there isn't a football fan outside the Connecticut-Maine-Vermont triangle who believes that Coach Bill Belichick and/or quarterback Tom Brady didn't have a hand in what is now known as Deflategate, despite their denials. The most successful coach-quarterback tandem in the history of the sport — and one known for detailed preparation before games — lost the benefit of the doubt in an infamous spying incident ago.

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But so what? The Super Bowl will be played, and depending on what the National Football League's investigation can actually prove — and you can bet it won't pin the blame on anyone in authority — some modest punishment might be meted out. In the playground, such behavior would get you banned (or worse depending on the venue), but in professional sports, it probably gets you higher TV ratings, which is, after all, the point of it all.

It's a particularly absurd moment for Baltimore Ravens fans. The Colts could not have beaten the Patriots last Sunday if Andrew Luck had hidden an unmanned drone in his pigskin, let alone been made aware that his football was a little softer than normal. It was 45-7. That's a beat-down. The Ravens, on the other hand, likely lost a playoff game to the Patriots one week earlier despite twice enjoying two touchdown leads because the home team used a bit of formation trickery that wasn't illegal but wasn't exactly standard practice either.

Letting a little air out of game balls? That's contemptible. Disguising a receiver as an ineligible lineman at the last second, a practice never before seen in a playoff game? "Study the rule book," as Mr. Brady likes to say. And he should know, as it's clear they study the rule book in New England like unrepentant sinners meticulously perusing the Bible for loopholes.

Not that we're bitter here in Baltimore, but Ravens defensive end Chris Canty produced the best observation on the matter. He called the Patriots "habitual line-steppers," meaning they are always looking to push the envelope of the rules even if it means potentially compromising the integrity of the game. He also compared the incident to the use of performance-enhancing drugs like steroids, which could be true as soon as scientists discover a deflated football can cause baldness, heart disease and infertility.

As in most scandals, it's the cover-up that usually gets people in trouble, and quite a few former players have found Mr. Brady's claims of Monday morning astonishment a bit hard to swallow. Yet the NFL, an organization that hasn't exactly distinguished itself this year in the integrity department, is unlikely to satisfy skeptics this time around. Patriots owner Bob Kraft is a popular figure in football's billionaires club. Think the NFL will toss his star quarterback before the big game? Think again.

What's a football fan to do? There's really only one appropriate response: Don't watch the Super Bowl. Not because 11 slightly deflated footballs used in a blow-out game is all that big a deal but because this incident — and the public's inflated concern about it — demonstrates that we're all taking the game way too seriously. And it's hardly the only example of the NFL, its players, coaches, owners and fans getting carried away.

So when Feb. 1 rolls around, perhaps it would be a good day to go see "Selma" at the local movie theater, break out the family's favorite board game or, if one absolutely has to watch television, tune in the "How I Met Your Mother" marathon on WGN. As much as the NFL and its advertisers want you to believe winning the Super Bowl is the loftiest possible achievement of mankind, it's actually just a game that's been pumped up beyond belief. Letting some air out of the whole thing might actually do the sport some good.

—Peter Jensen

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