CHANDLER, Ariz. – As the Patriots fled New England just as the first snowflakes of a blizzard began to fall, the AFC Champions couldn't quite escape a storm of controversy that continues to swirl.
While the team was winging its way across the country to Super Bowl XLIX host city Phoenix, FOX Sports reported that the NFL may have narrowed its focus into an investigation of under-inflated footballs used in the AFC title game on Jan. 18. According to FOX Sports, a Patriots locker-room attendant is now a "person of interest" who was among the dozens of people already interviewed by the league in what has become known as DeflateGate.
The FOX report adds that surveillance video exists of the attendant taking the footballs from the officials' locker room inside Gillette Stadium to another room before the balls were taken to the field for the game against the Indianapolis Colts. However, the NFL is still trying to determine whether the as-yet unnamed individual in question did anything improper.
The New England Patriots arrived in Arizona for Super Bowl XLIX and met the media at the team hotel on Monday, January 26, 2015.
Meanwhile, league-appointed investigator Ted Wells issued a statement on Monday indicating that the probe could extend far beyond the Super Bowl on Feb. 1.
"We are in the process of conducting a thorough investigation on the issue of the footballs used in the AFC Championship," Wells' statement began. "This work began last week, stretched through the weekend, and is proceeding expeditiously this week notwithstanding the Super Bowl.
"We are following customary investigative procedures and no one should draw any conclusions about the sequence of interviews or any other steps, all of which are part of the process of doing a thorough and fair investigation. I expect the investigation to take at least several more weeks. In the interim, it would be best if everyone involved or potentially involved in this matter avoids public comment concerning the matter until the investigation is concluded. The results will be shared publicly."
Patriots owner Robert Kraft, however, felt impelled to make his most pointed comments to date regarding the controversy, shortly after arriving at the team hotel on the southern outskirts of Phoenix.
"I have spoken with coach Belichick. I have spoken with Tom Brady. I have taken the time to understand to the best of my abilities what goes on in the preparation of game-day footballs. I want to make it clear that I believe unconditionally that the New England Patriots have done nothing inappropriate in this process or are in violation of NFL rules.
"Tom, Bill and I have been together for 15 years. They are my guys. They are part of my family. And Bill, Tom and I have had many different discussions over the years, and I have never known them to lie to me," Kraft continued.
"That's why I'm confident in saying what I just said, and it bothers me greatly that their reputations of integrity – and by association that of our team – has been called into question this past week."
Kraft went on to reiterate what he said in a prepared statement last Friday, welcoming the league's investigation.
"I'm confident," stressed Kraft, "that this investigation will uncover whatever the facts were that took place last Sunday and the science of how game balls react to changes in the environment. This would be in direct contrast to the public discourse which has been driven by media leaks as opposed to actual data and facts. Because of this, many jumped to conclusions and made strong accusations against our coach, quarterback and staff, questioning the integrity of all involved.
"If the Wells investigation is not able to definitively determine that our organization tampered with the air pressure of footballs, I would expect and hope that the league would apologize to our entire team and in particular coach Belichick and Tom Brady for what they have had to endure this past week. I am disappointed in the way this entire matter has been handled and reported upon. We expect hard facts as opposed to circumstantial leaked evidence to draw the conclusion of this investigation."
Kraft did not field any media questions after making his 3-minute statement, but head coach Bill Belichick and quarterback Tom Brady did when they followed Kraft at the podium.
Not surprisingly, Belichick elected not to elaborate on his remarks from Saturday's unscheduled press conference at Gillette Stadium. He faced a handful of questions about the issue after making an opening statement in Arizona.
"I appreciate the questions," Belichick said, "but I've covered everything I can cover in the previous week. My attention is focused on the Seattle Seahawks. Our job is to get ready to play this game Sunday, and that's where it's going to be from here on out. Right now, the only thing I'm focused on is the Seattle Seahawks."
"There's a lot of motivation at this point," Brady remarked when asked how the investigation and its fallout were affecting him and his teammates. "Anytime you face adversity, there are ups and downs, personally, professionally… I'm really excited for this week. It's going to be a great week.
"We'll see how this team reacts. We've done a good job all season. I think we're a very mentally tough group."
Both the coach and quarterback added that they were moved by Kraft's vehement support of them over the years and in the midst of this latest uproar in particular.
As much as they'd like to put the issue behind them, in all likelihood, the Patriots will continue to face non-Super-Bowl-related questions when they gather for the annual carnival of Super Bowl Media Day on Tuesday morning.