It’s not just about deflating footballs. It’s about the integrity of the game.

Deflated footballs aren’t the reason the Patriots beat the Colts 45-7 in the AFC Championship Game. Then again, a third-rate burglary isn’t the reason Nixon trounced McGovern 520-17 in 1972 and Watergate still led to his resignation. In the NFL, as in politics, you just never know.

“Deflate-gate” is unlikely to bring down Bill Belichick, but whether it’s is a scandal or another bit of over-the-top gamesmanship by the Patriots, it’s only the latest chicanery related to Belichick that we know about.  If they’re using deflated footballs, what else are the Patriots doing to gain an advantage?

The Patriots’ latest controversy blew up Thursday. The suspicion over the Patriots’ 11 deflated footballs against the Colts, the speculation over how directly Belichick anTom Brady might be involved and the suggestions of punishment — a fine, being suspended for the Super Bowl, losing draft picks, flogging, playing the Super Bowl with the Bears’ defense — have reached extreme levels. But Belichick and the Patriots deserve every bit of it.

If this is being blown out of proportion, Belichick and Brady have to realize it’s their own fault. In and of itself, deflating footballs might be a minor transgression — a lapse of judgment, a case of a team getting a little overzealous in its desire to win.

But this is the Patriots — again. Their history of breaking NFL rules (Spygate) and Belichick’s legendary habit of using his technical knowledge of the rules to his advantage — sometimes skirting the line of fair play — has deservedly blown this story out of proportion. Belichick has established that he’ll do whatever it takes to find an advantage. Sometimes it’s genius. Sometimes it’s annoying. And sometimes it’s just plain illegal. And that’s just the stuff we know about.

“I came in Monday morning [and] was shocked to learn in the news reports about the footballs,” Belichick said at a press conference Thursday in Foxborough, Mass. “I had no knowledge whatsoever of the situation until Monday morning.

“I’d say I’ve learned a lot more about this process in the las three days than I knew, or had talked about in the last 40 years that I’ve coached in this league.”

No surprise there. You never know what Belichick knew and when he knew it. But there was something else missing from his press conference Thursday — defiance. Though he didn’t answer any questions substantively, he didn’t blame anyone for asking them either. He didn’t claim the media was distracting him and his team before the most crucial game of the season.

“I don’t have an explanation.”

“I told you everything I know.”

“There’s nothing I can add to it.”

“I have no explanation for what happened.”

Brady, speaking at a press conference later in the day, resolutely denied having anything to do with the under-inflated balls. But his carefully worded language was worth noting.

“I have no knowledge of any wrongdoing of any kind,” he said. “I’m very comfortable saying that nobody did … as far as I know. I don’t know everything. I like them the way I like them, 12.5 [pounds per square inch]. To me that’s a perfect grip for the football.

“I would never do anything outside of the rules of play. I would never have somebody do something that I thought was outside of the rules.”

“As far as I know” is the operated phrase of the day. Brady and Belichick know something was wrong. And they likely know this wasn’t an accident. Because of the culture that Belichick himself has established over the last 15 years with the Patriots, somebody in the organization was looking for an edge and got caught.

What’s the punishment? His critics are calling for him to be suspended for the Super Bowl or lose draft picks. Without a smoking gun, he’s likely to get away with a fine — a virtual slap on the wrist. Bill Belichick always seems to get the better end of the deal.