The fourth Super Bowl victory was supposed to be the one that put the controversies behind the New England Patriots. For eight long years since the tide turned against them after 2007's Spygate, the Patriots and their fans were subjected to the incredibly simplified "they haven't won anything since Spygate," which summed up a popular general feeling that New England could no longer win the big one without the cheating.
Yes, the Patriots won more games, division and conference titles than anyone else in the time, and came within two miracle plays by the Giants of having two more Super Bowl wins, but apparently not winning a Super Bowl since Week 1 of 2007 was hard proof that the Patriots were no longer good because they couldn't videotape opponent's defensive signals from a disallowed area.
With a fourth ring, it was hoped that things would finally come full circle for the Pats. That the haters would realize that, despite the overblown controversies and cheating accusations, the Patriots' place in history was cemented and perhaps, could be respected.
But as if on cue, Deflategate dropped just hours after the AFC Championship Game, and once again the pundits are out to discredit everything the Pats have accomplished, throwing around asterisks and cheater accusations, only fueled further by false media leaks from the NFL and a far-from-convincing investigation.
After a few months to bask in the glory of their fourth Super Bowl title, the release of the Wells Report, and its corresponding punishments from the NFL, have set the Patriots right back to where they were after Spygate — a lightning rod for criticism and "hot takes."
So what will the long-term effects of Deflategate be on the Patriots as Tom Brady enters the final three years of his current contract? There's little question that Brady and Bill Belichick are in their final act together, one way or another.
Will Deflategate prove to be the impetus for another scorched earth campaign, reminiscent of what the 2007 Patriots did after Spygate? Or will it be the straw that breaks New England's back?
The difference with Spygate was that it happened in-season, with the accomplishments of many of the dynasty veterans still on the roster being called into question. There was little doubt how players like Tedy Bruschi, Rodney Harrison and others would react in the weeks immediately following, as the "us against the world" card was never easier to play for a team that was already fueled on proving doubters wrong, even when it was clearly one of the best teams in the NFL.
But what about now? Yes, Deflategate is all anyone can talk about on all forms of NFL media right now, in the dead of the offseason. Will that still be the case four months from now? Will the Patriots' hate fire still burn as hot then?
And how much will new players like Jabaal Sheard and Scott Chandler, or rookies like Malcom Brown, really feel they need to prove the haters and doubters wrong? There are certainly enough Patriot veterans, led by Brady, to play with an extra chip on their shoulder. But can we really expect it to be a rallying call for the team months from now?
The Patriots' new and unproven secondary should be focused on what it is doing rather than trying to send messages to anyone.
Perhaps Deflategate will be the true beginning of the end for this Patriots dynasty. There are already rumors of dissension among owner Robert Kraft, Belichick and Brady, and with Kraft abandoning his appeal of the NFL's punishment, what kind of message does that send to Brady as he prepares his own appeal?
Brady's suspension could be reduced, but it's still very likely that Jimmy Garoppolo, a promising second-year quarterback will get at least a start or two. No one needs to tell Brady what can happen when a veteran quarterback has to miss a couple games. He's seen firsthand that getting your starting job back is never a guarantee, especially under Belichick.
In the past, New England has been able to put aside all the outside "noise" and focus on playing football. That might be their greatest strength under Belichick, as there always seems to be some kind of distraction coming from outside the walls of Gillette Stadium, whether it was the unexpected release of a veteran player or an unexpected loss in the early part of the season.
It comes back to Brady and Belichick, as it always has the past 15 years. Never before has Brady's integrity been called into question, and if he needed some added motivation to wreak havoc even after securing his fourth Super Bowl ring, he certainly has it. But in football there are no guarantees.
The Patriots' dynasty has been an unprecedented ride of wins and controversies, and responding to this final black mark just might be the biggest test yet. But if there's one thing we know about Belichick and Brady, they'll go down swinging and it will be front page news one way or another.