'Tis the season for another potential Patriots cheating scandal
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From Lamar Jackson to Derrick Henry to every last second of that bonkers 49ers-Saints game the other day, this NFL season has been quite the thrill ride. Now, with only three weeks to go until the playoffs, we have a potential controversy involving the Patriots, who stand accused of illegally recording video of an opponent's sideline.

It's the kind of story that's bound to make a lot of people lose their minds. Which is why I love it. It's like Christmas came early.

If you haven't been laser-focused on every detail of this burgeoning drama, you're probably wondering what year it is (hint: it's not 2007), and you probably have questions about where this thing is headed. So grab your tin-foil hat and your performative outrage, and let's get to 'em.

Hold on. The Patriots did what now?

Yeah, so, the gist of it is that a Patriots employee recorded video of the Bengals' sideline from the press box during Sunday's Bengals-Browns game in Cleveland. A Bengals employee noticed this, security got involved, and the NFL was informed. That Bengals employee even provided the league with an eight-minute video as evidence. This is probably where I should mention that the Patriots play the Bengals in Cincinnati this Sunday.

Wait, so the Patriots were that brazen about it?

Yep. The Athletic even reported that the camera person was wearing a Boston Bruins hat as he went about his work. Which only adds an additional layer of hilarity to the entire affair. The only thing missing was an EXTRA LAHGE DAHK ROAST from Dunkin' to complete the scene.

Did they ... not think they'd get caught?

Well, that's what's weird about it. The Patriots claim the person with the camera was part of a production crew that was taping a longer video feature. That feature was to be part of a series - called "Do Your Job" - that takes behind-the-scenes looks at various departments within the Patriots organization. In this case, they were shadowing a pro personnel scout.

"The sole purpose of the filming was to provide an illustration of an advance scout at work on the road," the Pats said in a statement. "There was no intention of using the footage for any other purpose."

The production crew was granted a credential to be in the press box, though the Patriots acknowledged they failed to inform the Bengals and the NFL about why they were there. The Patriots acknowledged having "unknowingly violated a league rule by filming the field and sideline," while also saying the film crew is "independent of the football operation." Head coach Bill Belichick has likewise denied any involvement.

So, an innocent mistake?

An innocent mistake.

Was no one involved aware of, like, Spygate? I mean, the Patriots were literally caught doing this a dozen years ago and got punished for it.

It's all a little too on the nose, isn't it? Especially when you consider what ESPN reported in a 2015 deep-dive into the original Spygate controversy:

During games, (Patriots employee Matt) Walsh later told investigators, the Patriots' videographers were told to look like media members, to tape over their team logos or turn their sweatshirt inside out, to wear credentials that said Patriots TV or Kraft Productions. The videographers also were provided with excuses for what to tell NFL security if asked what they were doing: Tell them you're filming the quarterbacks. Or the kickers. Or footage for a team show.

That sounds familiar.

Doesn't it? There's all sorts of plausible deniability baked into this thing. Would the Patriots really try to engage in Spygate 2.0 by dispatching Tommy from Quinzee to do their dirty work, right out in the open? Or does the obviousness of that provide the perfect cover?

Would anyone believe they'd be audacious enough to try this again, after what happened the first time? Or is that not the perfect reason for them to do it again?

And would they really bother doing this in preparation for a 1-12 opponent? Or is that just the time to do it and to risk getting caught? Unless it was all just an innocent mistake. Which is absolutely possible, all jokes aside.

But get this: ESPN's Diana Russini reported that the Patriots camera person asked security to delete the footage and to forget anything ever happened. Which isn't conspicuous at all.

Amazing.

Right? There's so much grist here for conspiracy-minded folks of all sorts, which will likely include just about anyone who cares even a whit about this story.

On one side you have all the teeth-gnashers who will point to the precedents of Spygate and Deflategate and the Patriots' two-decade run of success to immediately declare the Pats guilty. On the other side you have the re-emergence of the Boston Sports Persecution Complex, which thrives on self-victimization no matter how many championships the city's teams win.

Remember when the Patriots used to just flat-out spook teams into worrying about subterfuge?

Yup. Has it already been four years since another team publicly allowed its paranoia to get the best of it against the Patriots?

Huh?

In 2015, as Deflategate was raging, Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin accused the Pats of scrambling his team's headset frequencies during a loss. And later that season, the Jets got spooked into wondering whether the Pats had planted listening devices in their locker room in Foxboro. Both incidents turned out to be much ado about nothing. But those were the days.

How are people handling this?

With all of the thoughtfulness and earnest calm you'd expect. The takes are already rolling in: Here is a call for Roger Goodell to get tough with these scoundrels; there is a plea for Belichick to be fired if proven guilty; and over here you can learn that Belichick must be believed because he said he'd never do it again and it's not worth the trouble. This new incident has so many people fired up and on edge. It's really got something for everyone.

But does any of this matter? Does taping signals really give a team any kind of advantage?

I'll let Russini handle this one:

So what happens next?

The NFL is investigating, and it reportedly "hopes to move quickly," but the inquiry could drag on, depending on where things lead.

How do you think it plays out?

Absent any kind of new information, it's going to be tough to prove the Patriots behaved with malicious intent, even given their history. Besides, the only truly just outcome would be if they got really pissed off and started winning every game by 40 before losing in the Super Bowl.

Dom Cosentino is a senior features writer for theScore.

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'Tis the season for another potential Patriots cheating scandal
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