Let's start right at the top and say I had no idea that both teams in an NFL game supplied the footballs for their own offenses. The mystery of how a game ball gets from the Wilson factory to its appointed spot on the field never seemed like an interesting subject. There's a bag of balls, and when they need another, some kid tosses one to the official. What could be complicated about that? What could be more elemental to the game than the mere presence of the football?

During one of the previous soccer World Cup preparations, U.S. coach Bruce Arena grew tired of taking questions every day on the ball that had been selected for play, one with a supposedly more aerodynamic cover and super technology that would transform it into an unstoppable scoring spheroid. (It, of course, proved to be nothing of the kind.) After a few days of this, Arena, who would be the Bill Belichick of soccer if anyone paid that much attention to the game, said loudly in his perpetually exasperated Brooklyn accent: "It's a bawwwl."

So it was, but both teams use the same one in soccer and, lo and behold, that's somehow not the case in the NFL. A cigar isn't just a cigar, and a football isn't just a football. There are many people who now claim they were aware of this - having no doubt just found out themselves - and can't believe that journalists who purport to know something about the game could be getting paid despite being so clueless while they themselves are unfairly shackled by life to the task of keeping the Kellogg's separate from the Post on the Acme shelves.

I don't know what to say about that except I've talked to a lot of people in the week since it was discovered that the Patriots apparently unjuiced their footballs prior to the AFC championship game against Indianapolis. No one knew it could work that way.

Furthermore, no one believed the NFL would have such a farkakte system in the first place. The officials check the balls two hours before the game to make sure they are legal and then give them back to the teams! ("OK, no foxes in this henhouse. Let's leave the door open and take a nap.")

I think Belichick is just as grumpy-evil and Tom Brady just as phony-pure as the next guy, but there's no way to blame the Patriots for this mess that the league constructed. If it is standard procedure for NFL teams to scuff the shine off the footballs and manipulate them in whatever manner they choose before presenting them for inspection, then I suspect every team in the league makes sure its quarterback gets to play with a football he likes. And if that includes later softening it slightly, that happens everywhere, too.

The only surprise is that it came to light this time. Even former referee Mike Pereira, who has become television's expert on NFL officiating as he morphs into Marty Scorsese before our eyes, says the officials can't be expected to tell the difference by hand between a ball that is inflated properly and one that lacks a couple of pounds per square inch of pressure.

When D'Qwell Jackson of Indianapolis intercepted a Brady pass early in the second quarter and, rather than giving it to an official, took the ball to the Colts sideline and flipped it to an equipment guy, he wasn't cracking the Da Vinci code. He had made a big play in a big game, and he wanted the equipment guy to wrap some athletic tape around its middle, write "Jackson, INT" on the tape, and put it away as a keepsake. Happens all the time. But the equipment guy, who must be great at finding the ripe honeydews at the store, thought the ball felt funny, and here we are.

Now, there's no question this was systematic, if the report is accurate that 11 of the 12 New England footballs were underinflated. And, based on the Patriots' history with the rule book, it's just as likely that Belichick's immediate reaction would be to fire the guy who didn't underinflate the 12th ball.

Was it cheating, or was it taking advantage of an opportunity? For a fan, that kind of question is easy to answer. It takes only one more question: Did my team do it?

In baseball, it is considered wily gamesmanship for someone in the dugout to figure out the signs of the opposing third-base coach. Would it be somehow different if the signs were videotaped and studied later to reveal their patterns? Most people would say yes.

Would the Patriots have been disciplined eight years ago if they merely hired genius code-breakers to observe and memorize opponents' sideline signals rather than recorded those signals? Probably not, but the intent would have been exactly the same.

The unalterable truth is that with money and success on the line, people will cheat if you let them. The NFL let them in this case, and likely in many other cases with many other teams, with its moronic system. Sure, shame on the Patriots for cutting corners again (and getting caught), but the league should be a little ashamed, too.

bford@phillynews.com

@bobfordsports