Few champions have returned to the field under this thick a cloud. But as the accusations and rumours and innuendo pile up, New England Patriots players insist they have shut out the noise as they begin the defence of their Super Bowl title tonight against the Pittsburgh Steelers.
After the protracted ‘Deflategate’ saga dogged their summer, albeit with a satisfactory conclusion in the lifting of Tom Brady’s ban, the week has been full of more stories of rule-breaking, including an ESPN investigation which detailed a range of ‘cheating’ accusations, extending back to the infamous Spygate episode of 2007, when the Patriots were accused of videotaping New York Jets’ defensive coaches’ signals.
ESPN allege the Patriots spied on opposing teams much more often than originally revealed by the NFL. Amid a host of other claims, ESPN sources alleged that Patriots staff rummaged through team hotels for playbooks and sneaked into opposing locker rooms during pregame warm-ups.
The report also implies that strong NFL efforts to punish quarterback Brady over DeflateGate - which include an appeal against the judicial overthrow of his four-game ban - was a “makeup call” for SpyGate in the eyes of Commissioner Roger Goodell.
A further Sports Illustrated story claimed that NFL teams remain suspicious of the methods used under the regime of Patriots coach Bill Belichick, and detailed the precautions taken to secure team practice before facing the Patriots.
In a statement, the franchise has batted away the latest round of accusations in familiar fashion.
“It is disappointing that some choose to believe in myths, conjecture, and rumors rather than give credit to coach Belichick, his staff, and the players.”
While players lined up after practice this week to take the heat off their QB.
“I understand that certain things are being said about our team and our organization, but we can’t let that come into our locker room and take away our focus. Things are going to be written. Things are going to be said. But it’s up to us as a team to ignore the noise and just focus on the Pittsburgh Steelers. Simple as that,” said wide receiver Matthew Slater on Tuesday.
“I wasn’t involved in any of that,” added defensive end Rob Ninkovich. “I’ve been here for seven years. That was before me. I’ve got nothing to say about it. Everything that’s said outside this building you can’t pay attention.”
Wide receiver Danny Amendola was also battening down the mental hatches: “I’m just focused on the Steelers and getting ready to play the game. We had a good practice today. Everybody feels good, everybody’s running around. We’re excited to get it started.”
Slater did accept the narrative around the team does rather overshadow tonight’s unveiling of their Super Bowl XLIX banner.
“It’s obviously unfortunate,” he told Comcast Sportsnet. “The circumstances that have come up over the last several months, our team’s not thrilled about, but it is what it is. A lot of these things are out of our control, and they don’t really relate to us. We just have to go out and do our job and just work.”
For their part, the Steelers have made no special security plans ahead of their visit to Gillette Stadium, according to tight end Heath Miller.
“I don’t think I’ll be saying anything noteworthy, so I’m not worried about it,” he joked to the Pittsburgh Post Gazette.
Head coach Mike Tomlin referred to the Steelers’ opener as “a tall task,” and tackle Kelvin Beachum preferred to focus on a formidable challenge on the field, rather than any off-field chicanery.
“At the end of the day, it’s about what we’re doing, not so much about who they got playing and what they’re doing. All that stuff is in the past; they’re still a quality team that we gotta play, and we’ve gotta go out and play well.” But will that be enough? Post-Gazette columnist Gene Collier summed up the prevailing attitude at the moment to the Patriots.
“You not only have to play well against the Patriots, you’ve got to know every potential trick in their book, a book that makes “War and Peace” look like a pamphlet.”
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