Forget all about the most debated topics that have stemmed from the New England Patriots' use of deflated footballs in the AFC championship game – did Tom Brady order it, did Bill Belichick know about it, is Bill Nye the Science Guy even a scientist?
The question that has clues but no conclusion, the one that could prove to be the biggest and most historic of them all is this:
Did the NFL run a sting operation on the Patriots?
And if so, shouldn't the Indianapolis Colts, and the rest of the league, be more upset about the league's investigative tactics than anything New England has been accused of doing?
Reports have emerged during the past week that NFL teams, including the Colts, complained during the regular season and perhaps playoffs about the Patriots using underinflated footballs. Fox Sports' Jay Glazer reported that in response to those complaints, the league always planned on checking New England's footballs at halftime. ESPN's Ed Werder reiterated that suggestion on Twitter on Sunday.
— Ed Werder (@Edwerderespn) January 25, 2015
If so then the NFL was willing to let New England use a deflated football to its advantage for the first half of a game with the Super Bowl on the line, rather than stop the contest immediately and check, or even just warn the Patriots of their concerns prior to kickoff to make sure everything was fair and square for all 60 minutes.
This would be … astounding.
More astounding than if it was definitively proven that Brady himself took the air out of the ball. Competitors have sought advantages ever since there has been competition. A player working the equipment over for an edge is nothing new. A league letting it happen, letting one guy break the rules because it was trying to play cops and robbers would be a whole new twist.
So is it true?
Officially, the league has only said, "the investigation began based on information that suggested that the game balls used by the New England Patriots were not properly inflated to levels required by the playing rules."
No details on when that suggestion occurred.
Yahoo Sports asked the league Sunday what prompted the decision to check the footballs at halftime, whether media reports of a preplanned test were accurate and if they were, why the league wouldn't be concerned over knowingly compromising the competitive balance of the AFC title game.
The NFL declined additional comment or clarification on all items.
It's essentially allowing the speculation from Glazer's report to continue, no matter how bad it makes the league look. And, it's worth noting, at this point Glazer's reporting carries more credibility among many football fans than an official NFL statement.
Still, this would be so absurd, so over-the-top that it's a challenge to believe even an NFL prone to bumbling would stoop to it.
The Patriots led 17-7 at halftime, after using some of the deflated footballs. This wasn't a prohibitive deficit but it was a significant advantage. New England has won 74 consecutive regular-season home games when leading at the half.
It actually played better offensively in the second half with properly inflated footballs (the Patriots wound up winning 45-7). Patriots fans point out that it proves the pounds per square inch inside footballs isn't a big deal. Perhaps, but the NFL believes this rule, and the reasoning behind it, is a big deal or else the Super Bowl wouldn't be consumed with a) the original investigation and b) a leak to ESPN that 11 footballs failed the PSI test, which blew this entire thing into a huge story by implying the Patriots were guilty.
As for letting New England walk into a trap, what if the Pats led 35-0 at the half? What if the game was out of hand and Indy was left all but hopeless? Or what if it ended close and every play, including first-quarter scores, mattered?
All that to catch a deflated football scheme? Could the NFL have cared more about that than the Colts' chances?
This is a review that may yield nothing more than a fine or a lost draft pick, and one that is so slow moving that Tom Brady said he doesn't expect to speak to investigators until after the Super Bowl.
Again, it's almost unfathomable. Almost.
Early reports suggested Indianapolis alerted the league of the issue after a second-quarter interception by D'Qwell Jackson, who gave a Patriots football to a Colts equipment man who, in turn, noticed a problem. Jackson has since told NFL.com he noticed nothing wrong. There's been no word from the equipment guy. Of course, that scenario could have happened and the NFL still could've been waiting for halftime to check the footballs. They aren't mutually exclusive.
If the NFL wanted to employ such an aggressive investigative tactic, then why wouldn't it do it earlier, such as the Patriots' pointless Week 17 game against the Buffalo Bills that they all but lost on purpose? That would've been preferable.
It's possible the NFL did that and found nothing. It's possible they did it against Baltimore in the divisional round too and found nothing. It's possible Baltimore was the first complaint and thus the AFC title game was the first chance. Who knows?
What we do know is that hanging out there, without response from the league, are multiple reports that the halftime testing was part of a strange pseudo set-up and not something that just occurred; that a league so obsessed with this particular part of maintaining competitive integrity was willing to compromise the competitive integrity of a league championship game.
Bizarre. Completely bizarre.
But not refuted, which the NFL could do with a simple clarification of what prompted the investigation. It wouldn't seem to alter the central effort of its investigation, which the league says is to "determine the explanation for why footballs used in the game were not in compliance with the playing rules and specifically whether any noncompliance was the result of deliberate action."
Yet the NFL doesn't want to say.
So the speculation spins.
In the end is this going to be bigger than just a doctored football and will it be Roger Goodell, not Tom Brady, answering the most uncomfortable of allegations?