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Dan Shaughnessy

Turning sins into wins

Spygate. The New England Patriots - cheatin' and competin'. A week later, it's still something to chew on, perfect fodder for water-cooler conversation and talk radio.

These local sports episodes/scandals invariably polarize our populace in red state/blue state fashion.

It was like this when you had to choose Robert Kraft's side or Bill Parcells's side after the 1997 Super Bowl. It was like this when Prince Theo Epstein abdicated his throne for a few months and when stars like Roger Clemens, Pedro Martínez, Adam Vinatieri, and Johnny Damon left Boston.

So at this hour, how do you feel about your team?

If you own a "Pats #1" foam finger and have the WEEI Whiner Line on speed dial, your answer goes something like this: "Bill Belichick is the greatest, the Patriots are the greatest, and we will use this latest creation of the national media as motivation to punish the NFL this season. Thank you very much, New York Jets and Roger Goodell. We needed a new chip to put on our shoulder pad. Everyone knows that all teams do the same thing and Eric Mangini is a rat for calling out the Pats after he benefited from the same practices. Tell Hines Ward, Tony Dungy, LaDainian Tomlinson, and everyone on 'Around the Horn' to shut up and give us a little respect. We showed you Sunday night how much surveillance we need to whup those loud-mouthed Chargers. Did Bill Belichick order the Code Red? You're damn right he did!"

If, on the other hand, you listen to "All Things Considered," drive a Prius, and consider Harvard-Yale ("Fight fiercely, Harvard. Demonstrate to them our skill. Hurl that spheroid down the field") the highlight of the football season, you're probably saying, "I am shocked that the Patriots would need to cheat to win football games. This is an embarrassment to our entire region and permanently tarnishes those trophies outside Bob Kraft's office in Foxborough. It sends the wrong message to our young people and I can only wonder what else the league may uncover when it reviews the rest of the material the Patriots were forced to surrender. I wouldn't be surprised if Kraft fires his coach, or if perhaps Belichick is forced to resign before the end of the season."

Few in Patriot Nation are buying anything in the above paragraph, even if the New York Post is putting an asterisk (*caught cheating) next to the Patriots' 2-0 record in the newspaper's AFC East standings.

There can be no doubt that Belichick has rebounded nicely around here in the last couple of days. Sunday night in Foxborough, he got an ovation worthy of Springsteen in the Meadowlands and saw a banner that read, "In Bill We Trust." He also came away with a game ball, a contract extension through 2013, and one of the most impressive victories of his storied career. Better than all of that, his ballplayers stepped up for him. He became Bill The Victim, unfairly maligned by jealous opponents and a national media frustrated by seven seasons of stonewalling.

We saw his softer side Monday. The typically fruitless exchange with the assembled reporters featured a higher level of civility. Belichick admitted, "That's a fair question," when he was asked if he had any reaction to the commissioner's request for additional tapes. As nonanswers go, it was respectful and polite. He even said, "Of course," when asked if he would comply with Goodell's request. Later in the day, Belichick went on his paid radio gig and acknowledged that he'd solicited the help of funnyman Lenny Clarke for Saturday night's pep talk. Coach Chuckles, indeed.

Yesterday, Belichick got more support from Rosevelt Colvin at a sports breakfast for youth football coaches ("This is not going to change how we look at him - he was trying to help us") and from the coaching fraternity when word spread of complaints against the Jets lodged by Ravens coach Brian Billick. Meanwhile, New York Times columnist Selena Roberts labeled Mangini "Coach Hoodwink" and submitted that Mangini "double-crossed the organization that nurtured his career."

Now Belichick is being compared to Red Auerbach. Arnold had a laundry list of dirty tricks. He bragged about it in his own books. Red was a pain in the butt for everyone in the NBA office, but the league couldn't prevent him from winning championships. To his dying day, Red thought the league had it in for the Celtics. He was a paranoid schemer and we loved him for it.

So as Otter said to the Faber College tribunal, "The issue here is not whether we broke a few rules . . . we did."

Patriot fans have already moved on. So there was a little cheating. And the Patriots got caught. It's no big deal to the Flying Elvis folks with the foam fingers. Henry David Thoreau and Gandhi were both arrested. And they weren't so bad, right?

The Patriots may be national pariahs. They may be Goodell's worst nightmare. They may be lying cheats. But apparently all this negativity only makes them and their coach stronger. See you in Arizona in February.

Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at dshaughnessy@globe.com.

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