GLENDALE, Arizona – What happened Sunday night in the desert is just the kind of thing that might put Roger Goodell in the mood to shove an underling.


All that time spent investigating the Patriots, contriving evidence, letting incendiary and incorrect leaks fester, fighting and spending to make Tom Brady’s suspension stick in court, getting exposed as a double-talking, misdirecting henchman for the NFL owners that wanted to bring the Patriots to heel.

And after all that, what winds up being the payoff for Goodell in the marquee game of the weekend?

The Patriots beat the Cardinals, 23-21, without Brady and currently own a one-game lead over everybody else in the AFC East.

We could talk about the game itself and how Jimmy Garoppolo was better than expected and the Patriots again showed a level of team-wide mental toughness in taking down an excellent team on the road without two probable Hall of Famers (Brady and the injured Rob Gronkowski, not to mention Rob Ninkovich and Nate Solder).

But the big picture that shouldn’t be ignored is that this is the night when the punishment was supposed to start for New England. The night the Pats would start to feel the sting of being without their best player. The people in the league office and all the teams and owners who believe the arrogant, entitled Patriots to be perpetual line-steppers would begin to get their reward for the time and money spent on an issue Goodell allowed to hijack everyone’s attention.


And yet they are 1-0.

It’s been said that “living well is the best revenge.” In the moments after Chandler Catanzaro’s field goal missed wide left, it’s unlikely that many of the Patriots rejoicing on the field and sidelines were thinking about how they stuck it to The Man.  They weren’t necessarily playing for the guy whose face the “marketing people” put on the lighthouse. They played for themselves and each other.

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This game -- to them -- couldn’t have been very much about Tom Brady. They had their own business to take care of against a very good opponent with everyone expecting them to fall flat in prime time.

But by taking care of business, they raised a middle finger to the people who orchestrated an absurd punishment for something the NFL never even proved happened.

To be clear, the punishment to Brady and the team remains very real despite Sunday night’s win. The “cheater” label the league saw fit to affix to Brady isn’t going away because of a low snap on a 47-yard field goal. And the team having to be a less-than-full-capacity version of itself without Brady will still be there for the next three weeks.

But the reason the Patriots were in people’s sights to begin is because of one simple thing: Success. Goodell enjoys puffing out his chest and talking with pride about the fact no one player or one team is above discipline. In the case of Deflategate, the league literally made up an infraction to single out a team and player and then disciplined both player and team precisely because of who they were and what they’ve accomplished. Because of their success, the league sought and found a way to put the Patriots at a disadvantage.

And still they win. It must be maddening.