PHOENIX - They were inches from a clean getaway.
The Patriots arrived in the desert Sunday night and for five days were spared questions about "Spygate." It was as if the whole cheating thing and the ensuing sanctions never happened.
It all blew up yesterday when the
Naturally, when Roger Goodell took questions yesterday morning, he was bombarded with Spygate inquiries. And so the cheating sandal has resurfaced with full fury.
Not that they needed it, but the Patriots now have new motivation to crush the Giants and give the league the finger. Finding straw men to topple is a Bill Belichick specialty, and he won't have to be very creative on this one. A grandstanding yahoo Eagles fan with a lot of power, coupled with the league's slow response to Specter, conspired to tarnish the Lombardi Trophy that has already been engraved with a Flying Elvis logo.
The Patriots should be furious. This time, their legion of head-in-the-sand fans who believe Belichick can do no wrong have a legitimate reason to feel violated.
Let's start with the obvious admission that the Patriots got caught breaking the rules. Maybe other teams were doing it, maybe not. But the Patriots got caught. They were arrogant and sloppy and they paid the largest penalty in league history. Their reputation took a hit. They armed their millions of enemies with a weapon. If the Patriots embarrass your favorite team, you can always say they had to cheat to win. Even if you are the ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee.
The 2007 Patriots eat this stuff up with a spoon. Their season of perfection has been driven by settling scores. They've used every slight - real and imagined - as motivation to crush their next opponent. They were initially driven by the humiliating loss to the Colts in last year's AFC Championship game (blowing a 21-3 lead, yielding 32 second-half points). Then came Spygate and the questions about the legitimacy of their three Super Bowls. Then they had to hear that the refs were in cahoots with them. Then came challenges issued by the lame-o likes of Anthony Smith and Igor Olshansky. It was always something.
Now there's new motivation. The senator and the commissioner did them wrong.
Specter doesn't even have a dog in this Super Bowl fight; he's an Eagles fan. Specter's a regular caller to sports radio in Philadelphia (try to imagine John Kerry calling Fred Smerlas every week). He's been known to corner sports reporters and complain about the odd adjustments the Patriots made at halftime when they beat the Eagles in Super Bowl XXXIX. It's like they knew something.
So the esteemed statesman, in a complete waste of taxpayer money, wrote to Goodell Nov. 15 - almost two months after the Spygate game in the season opener against the Jets.
He told the Times that Goodell's destruction of Matt Estrella's football video was "analogous to the CIA destruction of tapes."
Wow. That's misplaced. And offensive, to boot. Ya Bloody Hoo.
Strangely enough, Specter's query drew no response from the league. The "United States Senate" letterhead somehow failed to get the attention of anyone in Goodell's office. A flier from a Chinese takeout joint would have gotten quicker attention. So Specter sent a second missive. (A league spokesman told the newspaper Specter's letters didn't reach Goodell's office until late last week.)
The league finally got back to the senator two days ago - just in time for Goodell's Super Bowl press availability. And now Spygate is all the rage. Again. Just as the Patriots prepare for immortality.
"It's a league matter," Belichick said yesterday morning before Goodell's press conference. "I don't know anything about it."
But of course he did know about it. And now everyone has been reminded of it. And the Patriots have new incentive to crush the Giants, 73-0, and force Goodell into that awkward moment when he presents the trophy to the team he punished for cheating.
Goodell's destruction of evidence definitely has a Nixonian flavor. Why destroy evidence? Ever? And Specter's motives are suspect, at best. But it is the timing of this episode that is particularly curious. It's as if the league and the senator wanted to make sure the Patriots' cheating was not forgotten as they stand on the threshold of history.
Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.