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The Patriots will never shed the 'cheaters' label

Unfair or not, the Patriots have a reputation for breaking the rules.

Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

So, with the 2015 NFL season now just days away, here's where we we stand with the New England Patriots:

They are the defending champions. They've won four Super Bowls since 2001. They have one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time, and one of the smartest coaches the league has ever seen.

And yet, the majority of the country, probably more than that, doesn't care. Chances are if you're a football fan and you live outside the New England area, you don't view the Patriots or Tom Brady or Bill Belichick as legends.

You view them as cheaters, and probably don't think most of their myriad accomplishments have come in a legitimate fashion. This has been the case since Spygate in 2007, when the Patriots were found to have illegally videotaped Jets coaches' signals. That was the same assumption held by many during the NFL's relentless pursuit of Brady during the DeflateGate scandal, in which Ted Wells' investigation found that he was "generally aware" that footballs were intentionally deflated to his liking in the AFC Championship.

Now, following ESPN's exhaustive report detailing the exhaustive fashion in which Belichick attempted to circumvent the NFL's rulebook prior to the Spygate scandal, those believing that the Patriots are just a buncha cheaters who deserve to have every title of theirs vacated are only going to become increasingly hardened.

How'd we get here, and what does this mean for the Patriots' legacy going forward? Let's take a look:

The Patriots' history of cheating allegations

There's no arguing that one exists, even if much of it is just allegations. There was the Spygate scandal, which according to ESPN, went much deeper and for a longer period of time than most realized. The Outside the Lines investigation found that the Patriots had videotaped other teams' signals since 2000. And even more:

Numerous former employees say the Patriots would have someone rummage through the visiting team hotel for playbooks or scouting reports.

After Spygate came to light, there were accusations in 2008 that New England had videotaped a Rams walkthrough in February 2002 prior to Super Bowl XXXVI -- something that was never proven.

But the rest of the league doesn't need proof. Other teams simply don't seem to trust the Patriots. As we learned in this Sports Illustrated report published Tuesday, the Seattle Seahawks went to great lengths to protect themselves from potential Patriots spy tactics prior to last year's Super Bowl. And they aren't the only ones:

Teams commonly clear out trash cans in their hotel meeting rooms in New England because they believe the Patriots go through them. One longtime head coach said he ran fake plays in his Saturday walkthroughs at Gillette Stadium because he thought the Patriots might be spying on his team. Another team has taken things further: It fled Gillette and found a different place to practice, and on game day it piled trunks of equipment against the double doors in the back of the visitors' locker room so nobody could get in.

The SI story claimed that at least 18 other teams besides the Seahawks took a safeguard approach before playing the Patriots. On top of that, several teams, including the Jaguars and Cardinals, claimed they experienced headset malfunctions when they played at Gillette Stadium. Former Colts head coach Tony Dungy made news recently when he confirmed rumors from 2010 that Peyton Manning worried that the Patriots' locker room was bugged and would discuss the game plan in the hallway when the team visited New England.

All of this was before DeflateGate, a seven-month saga that continues even after Brady's four-game suspension was thrown out in court. For non-Patriots acolytes, this is a pattern that is all the validation they need to call the Patriots cheaters, both then and now.

Other NFL teams cheat too

What's interesting about all this, though, is the reaction that the allegations against the Patriots generate, as opposed to the public response when others teams break the rules. The Falcons, for example, were punished this year for pumping crowd noise into their stadiumBrowns GM Ray Farmer was suspended four games for texting his coaches during games.

These are actions done to create competitive advantages. And yet, no one seems to care. The violations are forgotten. No cheater label is handed out.

So, what's the difference?

For one, the Patriots have all the qualities that hated teams usually do.They win all the time, their head coach comes across as smug, and their quarterback is a four-time Super Bowl champion with a supermodel wife and more money than most of us could dream of. All that creates jealousy, which creates animosity, which creates a desire to belittle a accomplishments. Saying the Patriots' success is all the result of cheating is the classic sports fandom reaction.

That, however, is not say that the Patriots aren't to blame. When the Browns or Falcons were accused of cheating, they admitted guilt and accepted the NFL's punishment. Everyone moved on. The Patriots, on the other hand, take almost a defiant stand against the NFL, even when they reluctantly take the punishment.

New England's complicated legacy

So here's what we know.

The Patriots, at times, have cheated. That is it. How much of an impact that cheating has had is unclear. Some might argue that it's been the primary cause behind the team's success. Others, such as diehard Patriots fan Bill Simmons, would point out that it's hard to see how knowing some of your opponents' signals could lead to a championship, let alone four of them, or that deflated footballs were the reason the Patriots demolished the Colts, 45-7, in the AFC title game

Those who want to believe the Patriots are cheaters have all the ammo they need. That's how "generally aware" of the team employees purposely deflating footballs morphs into Brady being a cheater on par with Alex Rodriguez and Barry Bonds. And that's how we reach this place where the Patriots' legacy gets turned into a battleground, one where both sides hammer each other with unprovable absolutes.

The Patriots have broken some rules. They've also won lots of games. How these two facts get sorted out over the years is going to be both excruciating and fascinating to watch.

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