Pssssssfffffffftttttt!

Hear that?

That’s the air being taken out of the New England Patriots’ latest AFC championship.

Fans from Caribou to Copley Square went to bed Sunday night warmed by the thoughts that their team would be playing in the Super Bowl again, for the eighth time.

They awoke Monday morning to reports that the Patriots were being investigated by the NFL for using deflated footballs in their 45-7 crunching of the Indianapolis Colts at rainy Gillette Stadium.

Gives new meaning to the old basketball cliche “taking the air out of the ball,” doesn’t it?

All this began sometime after midnight, as members of the Patriots scattered and the media wrapped up their stories.

Bob Kravitz, a longtime columnist in Indianapolis now working for WHTR.com, a television station website, tweeted: “League source tells me nfl is investigating possibility the pats deflated footballs.”

Then it took on a life of its own.

Cheaters! Again!

Yes, the Patriots got caught breaking NFL rules back in 2007 when they were illegally videotaping coaches of the New York Jets from the sidelines. Coach Bill Belichick was fined a record $500,000, the team was fined $250,000 and lost a first-round pick in the 2008 draft. And if you don’t think losing a first-round pick in the draft is a stiff penalty, you haven’t been paying attention to the NFL.

Ever since, any time the Patriots experience success (which is every season) or try something different (like the exotic four offensive linemen set they used in their playoff win against the Baltimore Ravens 10 days ago), red flags are waved.

How can the Patriots be so good for so many years? They must be bending the rules, right?

John Harbaugh, the coach of the Ravens, said the Patriots’ strange four-linemen formation was “clearly deception.” He added: “It’s not something that anybody’s ever done before. The league will look at that type of thing and I’m sure that they’ll make some adjustments and things like that.”

Please, stop it.

Instead of giving the Patriots credit for making a really good football team look like a really bad football team – as they did to rising star Andrew Luck and the Colts on Sunday – some people are looking for any suggestion that the Patriots did something illegal.

The NFL takes its inflation of footballs very seriously.

A former NFL official, Jim Daopoulos, told ESPN on Monday morning that game officials inspect 12 footballs from each team two hours and 15 minutes before the game and put a mark on them to indicate they meet the proper requirements and are good for usage. They then give the footballs to ball attendants, who are provided by the home team.

It is important to know that each team brings 12 primary balls to each game, and the home team provides 12 backup balls. The home teams are responsible for furnishing playable balls at all times.

Daopoulos said that if a ball doesn’t feel right, an official can throw it out. He added that balls can lose air pressure simply because of weather conditions, which were bad Sunday night.

But any tampering with the footballs, once marked by game officials, is seriously frowned on.

According to the NFL game operations manual, “If any individual alters the footballs, or if a non-approved ball is used in the game, the person responsible and, if appropriate, the head coach or other club personnel will be subject to discipline, including but not limited to, a fine of $25,000.”

It could include a loss of draft picks, according to the unnamed source who spoke with Kravitz.

Why is a deflated ball a big deal? An underinflated football is easier to grasp, thus easier to throw and easier to catch. Teams apparently have their own balls on their own sideline. The implication is that if the Patriots had a deflated ball, that could explain why Tom Brady completed 23 of 35 passes and Luck only 12 of 33. It would also detract from a great defensive effort by New England.

So what do the Patriots think of this?

Brady on Monday called the charges “ridiculous.” Wide receiver Julian Edelman said, “It’s funny to think about stuff like that.”

Belichick, in a conference call with reporters, said, “We’ll cooperate fully with whatever the league wants us to; whatever questions they have for us, whatever they want us to do.”

He added that he, like the rest of us, “didn’t know anything about it until this morning.”

Late Monday, the newspaper Newsday reported that a person familiar with the matter said Colts linebacker D’Qwell Jackson noticed that the ball seemed underinflated after his interception in the second quarter. Jackson told team equipment officials, who notified Colts coach Chuck Pagano. General Manager Ryan Grigson was notified in the press box, and he contacted the NFL, the person said.

The news of the NFL investigation set off a variety of sophomoric tweets about deflated balls, enough to make you cringe.

Actually, it was enough to deflate any good mood you might have been in when you awoke.