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Halfway there

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Intensely observing the Patriots high-wire act unravel over some three hours, with them tip-toeing as if emulating the Perils of Pauline through a maze of veritable minefields to escape the New York Football Giants thus remaining undefeated, suggests if this is not the best team in the history of the National Football League it must be the luckiest; although maybe you can't be the one without also being the other.

But of course, "Luck is the residue of design," you may recall having heard. Although it was not Bill Belichick who said that, but Branch Rickey. Birds of a feather, however separated by time and place and game.

There were a dozen reasons why the Patriots could not win that crazy game; another dozen averring they did not deserve to win. And yet all the highly contrived melodrama aside was there ever really any doubt?

That's the amazing thing about these Patriots under the aegis -- or is it more properly termed, "the spell" -- of Coach Belichick. You wait with mounting fascination for the hapless and by now mesmerized opponent to make the fatal mistake -- leave a few seconds too much on the clock, muff the interception that was so very makeable, allow the extra six or seven yards making the winning kick doable, even as inevitably they catch that precious break from the officials that might so easily have gone the other way. It's a scenario that's been countlessly repeated over their marvelous generation of ruthless football hegemony.

They'll go all the way now, at least through December. Having survived wily Coach Coughlin on a day maestro Brady was ordinary, the offensive line was decimated, and they were losing their offensive fireplug, they should now find the Bills, Jets and Dolphins little more than savage amusement. Some out there beyond the Mass Turnpike, where the Pats are routinely despised, persist in the hope Peyton Manning might teach them some manners. But in a wicked coincidence, even as the Pats were spinning their legerdemain in New York, the Broncos were melting down in Denver with the aged and weary Manning thoroughly bombing and getting benched for the first time in his entire life.

The party's over, Kids; at least until the playoffs. Ten weeks into the season, three months before Soupey 50, the Patriots are THE story of the season. There are a half dozen other teams having uncommonly dominant seasons. But if it's a brash bunch none raises alarms like the Patriots do.

Otherwise, the NFL is experiencing a somewhat checkered season featuring much mediocrity. Contrived parity is not working as intended these days in the league where it was invented. Writing in USA Today, the estimable Christine Brennan states the case precisely, declaring "Parity gives way to Futility."

Through the first 10 weeks you can make the case maybe only 10 of the 32 teams have seemed of serious playoff caliber, or much interesting for that matter. Maybe that's all that's needed for a post-season dance-card but it's not how it's supposed to work. True parity allegedly means every team has a shot. Not this year; not even close. Season's been over for fully a dozen teams since September.

In the AFC there are no competitive races unless you regard the South Division where all contenders have losing records. How embarrassing will it be if the Colts make the playoffs with more losses than wins? There's that strong chance although maybe Jacksonville will get hot. (Jacksonville?)

Halfway through, it's been a funny season. Controversy, legal mumbo jumbo, fractious and mean-spirited undercurrents, assorted bickering, prevail. The injury issue seriously challenging the game to its very roots is mighty relevant to the NFL, even if it chooses not to acknowledge it. People argue is Football doomed? Will it go the way of boxing? The challenge is valid.

But in the short term, for the NFL it's the personal conduct of its players and the abominable image it's crafting for the game and league that's become the crucial issue.

It is the Greg Hardy case that's quite single-handedly escalated the NFL's long simmering "behavior problem," reviving all the anger and embarrassment that devoured last season. Hardy, the fierce and volatile defensive lineman now with the Cowboys, was charged with domestic abuses a year ago and harshly penalized by the league and its much maligned commissioner, after the law let him off the hook.

Aggravating the issue further is the fact Hardy -- by all accounts an unpleasant fellow -- has been contemptuous of his accusers exhibiting little apparent remorse. When, with his familiar arrogance, Cowboy Boss man Jerry Jones rescued Hardy from banishment, he rattled his fellow owners. Enter "Deadspin," the rogue, muck-raking journal which, with customary delight, purchased and published pictures of Hardy's ex-girlfriend displaying the nasty wounds he's charged with inflicting. This has sparked further outrage, especially in the ranks of Hardy's usually indifferent NFL colleagues.

Everyone, it seems, is fed-up; even the players. The Ray Rice fiasco last year dramatized the scope of pro-football's problem with controlling the behavior of wayward personnel who have trouble leaving a taste for mayhem on the sidelines when the game ends and real life resumes. The ongoing Hardy fiasco this season affirms that personal conduct issues amount to a crisis not even the players any longer find tolerable.

This is amazing. There's no firmer, more unwavering lodge in all of sports than the NFL players' ranks, seemingly bonded by the shared pain and suffering central to mere survival in this bloody tough game. Quite simply, they don't rat on one another. Moreover, if you offend someone by running off at the mouth you risk having your head handed to you when next you meet on the gridiron. It's a kind of "Omerta" that applies here.

Mr. Hardy is becoming the historical exception. We have Terry Bradshaw bitterly denouncing him as a disgrace on national television. We have the intensely mild-mannered and legendary Cowboy role-model, Roger Staubach, expressing deep regret Hardy still has a job on his old team. We have several Eagles' opponents asserting they tried hard to drill him a week ago and terming the fact he's still allowed to play, "a joke." It's remarkable. When OJ Simpson was on the grill, charged with far more horrific acts, you couldn't find a player willing to say a bad word about him. Times have changed. The players resent being regarded primates because, in fact, only a few are.v

The quandary in which the NFL finds itself ensnared won't be easily resolved. It's fashionable to blame the bumbling commissioner, everybody's favorite scapegoat these days. But Roger Goodell is not responsible for the Hardy mess, currently the primary fiasco. Stung by the criticism he deservedly got for originally mishandling the Rice matter, Goodell came down hard on Hardy. Only to have the courts dismiss the case, then have an arbitrator reduce the 10-game suspension Goodell levied for this season down to four games, with all the wages Hardy was originally obliged to forfeit being returned to him. In short, Goodell got kayoed.

Methinks if Goodell could get away with it he'd ban Hardy for life. But he can't get away with it. Nor should he be allowed to, according to laws of the land including legally binding agreements to be found in the contract between the NFL and the NFL Players Association which allows for appeals plus league-appointed independent arbitrators to have the final say in such matters. And every time an arbitrator gets a case he returns a ruling that reduces the original punishment, most often significantly. It happens just as consistently in baseball.

It's not that the NFL doesn't try hard enough to police its game, it's just that the rules of the larger game don't allow them to get away with it. All of this was, of course, at the heart of Goodell's antics in the Tom Brady case in which, in the end, Goodell merrily made a fool of himself, as Brady and his barristers gleefully made hash of Goodell's contention that he must have the authority to decide what's best for his game.

So Brady walks, which you all stand up and cheer.

But so does Greg Hardy.

How do you feel about that?

Clark Booth is a renowned Boston sports writer and broadcast journalist. He spent much of his long career at Bostonís WCVB-TV Chanel 5 as a correspondent specializing in sports, religion, politics and international affairs.

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