The New England Patriots are heading to another Super Bowl, and allegations are swirling that they might have bent the rules to get there.
Multiple reports say the NFL has found the Patriots used underinflated footballs in their 45-7 rout of the Indianapolis Colts on Sunday in the AFC championship game. Slightly softer footballs are generally believed to be easier to throw and catch.
The Boston Globe reported late Tuesday that the Patriots were informed in a letter from the NFL that the league's initial findings indicated the balls in the team's possession did not meet specifications, which require an inflation range of 121/2-131/2 pounds per square inch.
The Colts became suspicious that a game ball didn't feel right after linebacker D'Qwell Jackson intercepted a Tom Brady pass in the second quarter. Jackson gave the ball to a member of the Indianapolis equipment staff, who alerted Coach Chuck Pagano. That information then was passed from Pagano to Colts General Manager Ryan Grigson, and then to Mike Kensil, NFL director of football operations, who raised the issue with on-field officials at halftime.
New England's 12 footballs were inspected twice at halftime, using different pressure gauges, and officials found the balls were not sufficiently inflated.
ESPN reported earlier Tuesday evening that 11 of the 12 balls were found to be underinflated by about two pounds each.
An NFL spokesman declined comment on that report, which had not been confirmed by other media outlets.
The latest controversy is more troubling news for the NFL, which has had a turbulent season off the field and has drawn sharp criticism for its handling of domestic violence incidents involving star running backs Ray Rice and Adrian Peterson.
This is not the first allegation of cheating by New England, which will play the Seattle Seahawks in Super Bowl XLIX on Feb. 1 in Glendale, Ariz.
In 2007, the Patriots were disciplined by the NFL for videotaping the hand signals of New York Jets coaches during a game, an incident that became known as Spygate. The league ultimately fined Patriots Coach Bill Belichick $500,000 — the maximum allowed by the league — the Patriots $250,000, and stripped the club of a first-round draft pick.
Two hours and 15 minutes before kickoff, an on-field official checks the air pressure on all the game balls. Each ball is inflated to within a one-pound range, so equipment managers can't sneak in ones that are bloated or underinflated to correspond with a quarterback's preference and hand size.
To ensure the footballs aren't switched during the game, the officials mark each of them using a personalized rubber stamp. Each team then receives a dozen balls, and a third dozen "K-balls" are set aside for the kicking game.
On Monday, Brady dismissed speculation of deflated footballs as "ridiculous." However, according to CBS Connecticut, Brady has expressed a fondness for underinflated footballs. More than three years ago, the quarterback told WEEI in Boston that he likes deflated footballs and therefore appreciates when tight end Rob Gronkowski squeezes the air out of game balls with hard spikes.
"I love that, because I like the deflated ball," Brady said. "But I feel bad for that football because he puts everything he can into those spikes."
In an interview Tuesday with ProFootballTalk Live on NBC Sports radio, league executive Troy Vincent said the NFL expects to wrap up its investigation of the matter "in the next two or three days" and that Patriots staff members were being interviewed.
Vincent did not say whether the findings would be made public or what punishments might be considered.
"We obviously want to get that on the table, get that behind us so that we can really get back to the game itself," Vincent said. "For a fan, you want to know that everything's equal. The integrity of the game is so important."