IF YOU ARE anything like me, when you heard about the Patriots' "deflategate" scandal your thoughts immediately went back to the 2004 Super Bowl.

I was in Jacksonville that day, and I attributed the Eagles' loss to some bad decisions by coach Andy Reid, some blown opportunities, and poor leadership by quarterback Donovan McNabb down the stretch (I make no judgment on "vomitgate").

I didn't know that several Eagles later said that it seemed as if the Patriots knew exactly which plays they were calling. I didn't give that contention much credence at the time, because the Patriots simply couldn't cover Terrell Owens, who caught nine passes on one leg in a magnificent performance. If the Patriots knew the Eagles' plays in advance, they certainly would have blanketed him.

However, 2 years later, the Patriots were caught secretly taping the Jets' defensive signals during a game, which made it entirely possible they did the same thing to the Eagles. The NFL came down hard on the Patriots, taking away a first-round draft pick and fining both the team and coach Bill Belichick. When the Patriots did not appeal their sanctions, it was pretty well established that they were cheaters who would stop at nothing to improve their chances to win.

Fast forward to this month, when NFL officials determined that 11 of the 12 footballs the Patriots used in the first half of their AFC championship Game against the Colts were significantly deflated. Aha! "Deflategate" was born, and the question arose whether Belichick and Tom Brady were serial cheaters.

The Patriots have since denied these allegations and put forward various theories - each more absurd than the previous. For example, Belichick opined that the cold, rainy weather caused air to go out of the footballs. Of course, that was total hogwash. If weather had anything to do with deflated footballs, please explain why the Colts' footballs were not similarly affected.

In steps the NFL to conduct an "independent" investigation. As usual, commissioner Roger Goodell defers to an independent and reputable attorney, Ted Wells. The investigation proceeds in secrecy until word leaks out that the NFL is focusing a person of interest - a locker-room attendant seen taking the footballs into a room the referee had weighed the balls but before the game started.

Meanwhile, criticism of the NFL efforts cropped up everywhere and it became clear no significant action would occur before the hallowed Super Bowl.

Richard Sherman, the somewhat wacky, always candid and often correct Seahawks cornerback, defiantly called the investigation a joke because Goodell and Patriots owner Robert Kraft were good friends. Then Kraft, in a startlingly unusual step, began the Patriots' first news conference in Arizona by categorically saying that the team had done nothing wrong and that, if no proof was found to confirm the Patriots were responsible, the NFL should apologize to the organization, coach and quarterback.

If all of this has your head spinning, let me, as a former prosecutor, try to shed some light.

First, if the NFL tries to pin this on a locker-room attendant, it would be reprehensible. The chance that a locker-room attendant acted alone is about the same as the 76ers making a late-season rally to make the playoffs and win this year's NBA championship.

If I were in charge of the investigation, the first thing I would do is polygraph every employee of the Patriots, including Kraft. I assume the players union would object to its members being subjected to a lie-detector test, but I would polygraph every other employee. If that locker-room attendant failed the polygraph, he would be interrogated about who ordered him to do so. We would again polygraph his answers.

When faced with the knowledge that the machine has caught a person in a lie, he or she will often tell the truth. You'd have an answer to who was responsible for this in a day or two, at most. Given the Patriots' past offenses and Brady's woeful answers to questions about this, I find it inconceivable to think that at least Brady and probably both he and Belichick knew all about this.

Still skeptical? Let me direct your attention to a Jan. 27 report by Warren Sharp, who found that from 2000 to 2006, the Patriots fumbled once every 42 touches, somewhere in the middle of the pack of NFL teams who play in non-dome stadiums.

However, since 2007, the Patriots' fumble rate has dropped to one in every 74 touches. The next best cold-weather team had a fumble every 56 touches, and the average was in the low to mid-40s. Sharp's research also showed that players who came to the Patriots from other teams after 2007 saw their fumble rate decline dramatically.

What could have changed in 2007? Well interestingly, after the 2006 season, Brady (and Peyton Manning) lobbied in favor of changing the NFL rule that only the home team provided game balls and instead allow each team to provide its own. So the plot thickens.

Everyone knows the partially deflated footballs are easier to grip both for passing and for holding on to while running. The evidence is abundant and clear.

So, what should the NFL do? I agree that the Super Bowl should go on without any sanctions. In the second half, when properly inflated balls were used, Brady completed his first nine passes and the Patriots outscored the Colts, 28-0. The Patriots are a very good team, and fans deserve to see them play the Seahawks with an intact roster.

But if the NFL's investigation, assuming it's a legitimate one, concludes that the Patriots cheated, the punishment should be harsh and swift. If Belichick's involvement is proved, he should be suspended for next season. If Brady knew of or even instigated the deception, he also should be suspended for a year. And the organization, as a repeat offender, should lose its next two first-round draft choices.

Much was said during the Ray Rice and Adrian Peterson scandals about the need for the NFL to protect the integrity of the game. Those incidences were extremely egregious and violated the basic code of conduct the league has a right to expect from its players. But this cheating goes to the heart of the integrity of professional football. It cannot be tolerated and should be punished swiftly and severely, and the Eagles should be installed as the 2004-2005 champions!

On Twitter: @GovEdRendell