SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. - When Robert Kraft pondered the lowest of lows in the Patriots' roller coaster journey to tonight's Super Bowl, he did not immediately think of Spygate.
Instead, he spoke of the death of backup defensive lineman Marquise Hill in late May, because it was a reminder of "how delicate the balance is over everything." He also touched on the anxiety he feels every time he sees star quarterback Tom Brady get sacked.
Yet as kickoff for Super Bowl XLII approached, Kraft, the team's chairman and CEO, was mostly fielding questions from a massive media corps about penalties levied against the club in September for illegal videotaping procedures.
In an interview with the Globe Thursday, Kraft defended coach Bill Belichick and the organization, saying the story "developed and got carried way beyond its relevance."
"We were treated unfairly and penalized, in my opinion, way beyond what we should have been," Kraft said, speaking in a conference room at the team's hotel, the Westin Kierland Resort and Spa.
"We have a new commissioner [Roger Goodell] who is trying to make a very strong statement and he is speaking to a lot of people. His responsibility is to protect the integrity of the shield and he was trying to send a message to everybody. It's just too bad we had to be in that position."
Kraft also suggested it was a case of others trying to knock the Patriots off the top perch they occupy in the ultracompetitive NFL. The Patriots will be playing in their fourth Super Bowl in seven seasons.
"It's another example of outside forces trying to disrupt our team," he said. "It could have broken apart everything we've tried to develop. But instead, it probably brought our team closer together in many ways, and solidified a lot of relationships and focus."
Kraft pointed out that tonight's game comes on the anniversary of their their first Super Bowl championship, Feb. 3, 2002, which he hopes "is good karma to make it happen again."
During that first Super Bowl season, the team grieved the death of assistant coach Dick Rehbein, had a polarizing quarterback controversy between Drew Bledsoe and Tom Brady, and dealt with ongoing off-field issues with star receiver Terry Glenn.
Much like 2001, the Patriots have endured considerable off-field turbulence this season: Hill's death in a Jet Ski accident, star cornerback Asante Samuel not reporting for training camp because of a contract dispute, safety Rodney Harrison serving a four-game suspension for violating the league's banned substances policy, allegations of battery against star receiver Randy Moss, and most of all, Spygate.
Through the adversity, Kraft believes the Patriots have become stronger, both on and off the field. He watched as players rallied around each other, and felt the same was true for him and Belichick.
"I know what he's about. I know what we're about, and I think it helped solidify and strengthen that relationship," Kraft said.
In some ways, Kraft feels that bonding has made the 2007 season special, specifically with his son Jonathan, the team's president; Belichick; and vice president of player personnel Scott Pioli.
"If I look at the evolution of the organization, and if we've hit our sweet spot as an organization, the reason is because there are really four people who are making a difference - that's Jonathan, Bill, Scott, and myself," Kraft said. "We work together as a unit and that has allowed us to get through all these difficult situations as a team. We're bound together very tightly."
Kraft was confident at the start of the season, but never could have envisioned a chance to post a perfect record.
"We knew we had a special team, but it always takes three or four games to know how the locker room jells," he said. "Once that happens, then it's a matter of how you play the second half of the season, rather than the first half. We played some games that were awfully close the second half of the season. There were probably four or five games that could have gone either way."
The closest call came in windy Baltimore Dec. 3, when it appeared the Patriots had lost on their final drive. But the Ravens were called for three penalties on fourth-down plays, and a late Baltimore timeout was called after it appeared the Patriots were stopped. The Patriots escaped with a 27-24 victory.
"We thought the special season had a chance of really being over when the weather conditions were so bad," Kraft said. "There is some good fortune and some fortuitous things happened in the last minute or so that gave us a shot. Then, of course, our guys and especially No. 12 [Brady], takes over and closes it out."
Now Kraft is hoping that the Patriots can close out only the second undefeated season in NFL history - joining the 1972 Miami Dolphins - by defeating the New York Giants tonight. Kraft said he's always admired Giants coach Tom Coughlin, dating to Coughlin's tenure at Boston College, and pointed out that he was a Giants fan before the creation of the Patriots franchise in 1960.
The Giants' three-game winning streak, and 10-1 record in road games this season, has Kraft worried.
"In a way, they're sort of like we usually are - they play very well at the end of the season, you peak, and you get that confidence and chemistry," he said. "We haven't been playing as strongly as we were the first half of the season. Part of it is people have figured things out a little better and they have more experience and more time, and of course, everyone gets up to play us and we get everyone's best game."
Kraft knows there are key issues ahead for the Patriots, such as the free agent status of Moss and Samuel. Specific to Moss, Kraft said he's developed affection for him and hopes he remains a Patriot.
But for now, the focus is solely on the present. Super Bowl XLII has finally arrived after two weeks of hype and hoopla, and a full season of trials and tribulations.
"It's with great pride that we go into this game and hopefully close the order," Kraft said.
Mike Reiss can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.