HOUSTON -- With almost giddy anticipation, the football world awaits the potentially delicious moment next Sunday night when NFL commissioner Roger Goodell might be presenting the Lombardi Trophy to owner Robert Kraft and the New England Patriots.
The story has been told and retold ad infinitum since the Patriots and quarterback Tom Brady were accused of deflating footballs prior to their AFC Championship Game against the Indianapolis Colts in January 2015.
The end result was a four-game suspension that Brady served at the beginning of this season along with a hefty $1 million fine to the team and the forfeiture of a first-round pick in 2016 and a fourth-round choice in this year's draft.
Yes, that's true: Even if the Patriots capture another Lombardi for their ever-burgeoning trophy case, they will still pay with another lost draft pick in three months.
Many in FootballWorld cheered because with the Patriots becoming the equivalent of baseball's Yankees or Notre Dame -- you either love 'em, or hate 'em -- it confirmed the widespread notion that the Bill Belichick-led team has benefited from cheating. Even if they really didn't.
Now, the irony is that many in the legion of Patriots haters are also Goodell haters and they are silently rooting for a New England victory followed by an awkward trophy presentation.
That occurs amid the backdrop of Goodell trying to get in front of the story and feigning respect for what the Patriots have accomplished.
It can't be coincidence that Goodell suddenly made an appearance on Colin Cowherd's Fox Sports radio show, with Fox the same network that is televising Super Bowl LI.
"Not for a second," Goodell said when asked about how awkward the trophy presentation will be. "Tom Brady is one of the all-time greats. He has been for several years. He's on the precipice of at least potentially winning his fifth Super Bowl ring. He's an extraordinary player, great performer, and a surefire Hall of Famer. So it would be an honor."
When asked about his relationship with Kraft, who has consistently criticized how Goodell handled the Deflategate investigation, including in a recent New York Times article in which he said, "Sometimes, the league really messes up, and I think they really messed this up badly," Goodell said, "I wouldn't be doing my job if somebody wasn't unhappy with a decision that you make or where you're doing it. Robert and I can disagree about things. We have a healthy respect for one another, but that's true with any owner. That doesn't affect my relationship or the fact we work together to try to make the NFL better ultimately. That's the most important thing going for us."
Kraft sure has an odd way of showing that "healthy respect."
Goodell's appearance also occurred after he had attended the Atlanta Falcons' two playoff games with it being duly noted that he hasn't been to Foxborough since the infamous Deflategate game.
Fans chanted Goodell's name during the game ("Roger, Roger, Roger"), tight end Martellus Bennett said, "Where is he? He's like Waldo right now," and when CBS broadcaster Jim Nantz handed the Lamar Hunt Trophy for winning the AFC to Kraft, the owner said, "For a number of reasons, all of you in this stadium understand how big this win was. But, we have to go to Houston and win one (more)."
Goodell, of course, had a ready (scripted?) answer when Cowherd posed the question about his game attendance.
"We had two great games," Goodell said. "I was in Boston two years ago for the divisional and the championship games. I try to get to as many stadiums as I can. We have two great games and you've got to choose. And frankly, the focus should be on the players, the coaches and the great game. That's the way it was this weekend, and the way it should be."
There's the rub. Much of the focus will continue to be this stale storyline, which never should have been allowed to get so out of control, and was originally inflamed by an NFL leak to ESPN with blatantly false information about the pressure of the footballs.
But Goodell rode with it because, as many believe, owners were angry that he wasn't harder on the Patriots after the Spygate debacle.
Think about it: One of the greatest quarterbacks of all time missed four games, the team paid a heavy price, and attorneys got hundreds of billable hours all because some footballs were slightly under the minimum pressure allowed on a cold, winter day in New England.
Oh, and the Patriots' offense actually played better in the second half of that game with the footballs reinflated.
William Shakespeare would say it's "Much Ado About Nothing," and the truth is, it's all a host of hot air.
But maybe, just maybe, Goodell is crazy like a fox. In his fervent quest to push the NFL to $25 billion in revenue, eyeballs on games are and always will be the bottom line. Controversy sells.
And we as consumers can't get enough of it in a world becoming dominated by "alternative facts."
--Howard Balzer is in his 40th year covering pro football and is a member of the Hall of Fame selection committee.