- - Sunday, January 22, 2017

ANALYSIS/OPINION

Deflategate will get its final dramatic chapter.

The New England Patriots, the target of the NFL’s campaign on air in footballs, will get a chance for revenge now, as their 36-17 in over the Pittsburgh Steelers in the AFC title game in Foxboro puts them on a collision course with their hated enemy, league commissioner Roger Goodell in two weeks at Super Bowl 51 in Houston.

The Patriots, making their eighth trip to the Super Bowl, will face the Atlanta Falcons, who beat down the Green Bay Packers Sunday 44-21 in the NFC championship game in the finale at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta.

Deflategate will become inflated again for the next two weeks, as the Patriots, despite the million-dollar fine from Goodell, the loss of their first round pick this past draft (as well as a fourth round pick this year) and a four-game suspension without pay of their standard-bearer, quarterback Tom Brady, to start this season have made it to the promised land, setting the stage for the showdown with Goodell at the trophy presentation ceremony — providing they get past the Falcons.

The Deflategate investigation into the Patriots and Brady illegally doctoring footballs was never about air, too much or too little. It was an opportunity for the league and rival NFL owners to punish the Patriots and their outlaw coach, Bill Belichick, for known and unknown transgressions they have committed against their league partners over the years.

The Patriots are the most hated franchise in football deep inside the boardrooms of the league and its teams. You saw a glimpse of that when Steelers coach Mike Tomlin referred to them as “a….holes” in the Facebook Live video put out there by Pittsburgh receiver Antonio Brown. That was more than coach speak. That is what the rest of the league thinks of New England, and it’s not just the jealousy of their four Super Bowl championships and their consistent excellence.

But in the process of punishing New England, Goodell and the NFL made the Patriots sympathetic figures — hard to do, considering how unlikeable and arrogant their leader, Belichick, is. But because the investigation seemed so absurd on its merits, the Patriots became victims. Now America will be rooting to see Roger Goodell on the same stage with Patriots owner Robert Kraft, Belichick and Brady.

New England buzzed right through the Steelers Sunday, and created a new star in wide receiver — and former college lacrosse player – Chris Hogan, who set a franchise playoff record with nine catches for 180 yards. Pittsburgh failed in the most important part of any game plan to defeat New England — make Brady (32 of 42 completions, 384 yards, three touchdowns) uncomfortable.

A secondary story in the next two weeks will be Kyle Shanahan, whose last game with the Atlanta Falcons before he becomes head coach of the San Francisco 49ers appears to be be the Super Bowl.

Shanahan’s high-powered Atlanta offense, with NFL Most Valuable Player candidate Matt Ryan (four touchdown passes, no interceptions) at the helm, rolled up 493 yards of offense in the win over the Green Bay Packers in the NFC championship game.

It wasn’t even that close. The magic that Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers was able to weave in the run that took the Packers to the NFC title game was missing, as the veteran quarterback completed just 27 of 45 passes for 287 yards, three touchdowns and one interception.

Once Green Bay running back Aaron Ripkowski fumbled near the goal line with Atlanta leading 10-0 early in the second quarter, the game quickly spun out of control for the Packers, who were down 24-0 at the half.

Now the 37-year-old Shanahan, the son of two-time Super Bowl coach Mike Shanahan and, of course, a very familiar name to Redskins fans, will likely become one of the story lines leading up to the Super Bowl, as the Atlanta offensive coordinator is expected to take the vacant San Francisco 49ers job as soon as the final game ends this NFL season.

Kyle Shanahan, as most of us know, was the offensive coordinator here in Washington, working for his father Mike, the head coach, from 2010 through 2013. He was a lightning rod for criticism while he was here in Washington, the favored son of the head coach who, while helping to devise the Robert Griffin III offense that led to the 2012 NFC East division title, was considered a failure by Redskins fans.

Now, though, after seeing what Kyle’s offense, with good offensive weapons like Ryan and Julio Jones, has done in Atlanta, Redskins fans may be wondering if they would be better off with Kyle running the show here in Washington than Jay Gruden. Add to that watching another young offensive guru, Redskins offensive coordinator Sean McVay, take the head coaching job with the Los Angeles Rams, and suddenly it seems like the kids who had the training wheels here in Washington are riding high, leaving a Redskins team that struggled in the final three weeks of the season and has many questions moving forward.

One of those questions being — will Kyle Shanahan try to trade for Redskins quarterback Kirk Cousins, who had a well-documented good relationship with Kyle Shanahan when he was here in Washington?

Thom Loverro hosts his weekly podcast “Cigars & Curveballs” Wednesdays available on iTunes and Google Play.

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