On Feb. 1, the New England Patriots, led by the grace of quarterback Tom Brady and the grim formulation of Coach Bill Belichick, will attempt to unseat the reigning Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks, their defense spearheaded by Richard Sherman.

Yet the nation’s most heated sporting debate revolves around the proper amount of air inside a football.

An alluring Super Bowl matchup has given way to a more captivating subplot. The NFL’s investigation into whether the Patriots improperly deflated footballs in the AFC championship game against the Indianapolis Colts, giving Brady and his receivers a better grip on the ball in the rain, has raised more intrigue than the game itself.

Entering their sixth Super Bowl in 14 years, the Patriots again find themselves swathed in a controversy that calls into question the ethics of their two most famous faces: Brady, the golden boy quarterback, and Belichick, the wicked genius coach.

Apart from the arcane specifics of the incident – allegations league officials regard as “very serious stuff,” a person familiar with the league’s deliberations said Wednesday – the episode has spurred larger questions.

What is the line between gamesmanship and fraud? Could their potential punishment affect the Super Bowl? Can the Patriots’ dominance over more than a decade be separated from their alleged – and, in some cases, proven – underhandedness? And since when could the pounds per square inch of air pressure of a pigskin cause so much fuss?

“Listen, if they did it, then it’s cheating,” said former Jacksonville Jaguars offensive tackle and likely Hall of Famer Tony Boselli. “If you did it, if you cheated, there needs to be consequences. It depends if they all knew or if there was a mistake or it was oversight. A lot could go into it.”

Under NFL rules, each team provides footballs for use on offense. The game officials inspect the footballs before kickoff, and the balls then are given to attendants provided by the home team, not the league.

Manipulating footballs, several NFL officials said, surely happens all across the league, and quarterbacks have particular preferences. One NFL assistant coach said he had heard of – but never seen first-hand – quarterbacks slipping an inflation needle into their socks to adjust footballs on the sideline. Former NFL quarterback and Heisman Trophy winner Matt Leinart wrote on Twitter: “Every team tampers with the footballs. Ask any QB In the league, this is ridiculous!!”

Boselli, now a Jaguars assistant coach, spoke on the field at Ladd-Pebbles Stadium in Mobile, Alabama, where hundreds of NFL team officials have descended for the Senior Bowl, an annual showcase for draft prospects and something of a spring break for scouts and coaches.

Late at night, with the aid of adult beverages, the Patriots’ latest alleged malfeasance has dominated conversation – a mix of simmering resentment and grudging respect: That Belichick will do anything to win. But, man, he sure does win a lot.

PUSHING ENVELOPES

As the Patriots have won three Super Bowls and lost two others in recent years by slim margins, they also faced one of the NFL’s largest scandals and whispers of further underhanded tactics.

In September 2007, Commissioner Roger Goodell fined Belichick $500,000 and the team $250,000 after the league determined the Patriots illegally videotaped opposing coaches’ signals – the scandal that earned the moniker “SpyGate.” Goodell also stripped the Patriots of a first-round draft selection.

That case led to other allegations of Patriots envelope pushing. In a 2005 playoff game at Gillette Stadium, the Jaguars lost their coach-to-quarterback communication for the first half. Coach Jack Del Rio said later his team’s headsets “mysteriously malfunctioned.” In 2011, Del Rio shut off his quarterback’s communication in practice before a Patriots game and quipped, “Those things happen. In particular when you’re going to New England.”

Some in the NFL believe the Patriots over the years have committed deep violations.

Others think everyone seeks any advantage they can find, and Belichick just finds more, better ways to do it.

‘TOO EARLY’ FOR PENALTIES

No one believes the Patriots beat the Colts because of their footballs. On the other hand, no one wants to let them off the hook if they bent a rule until it broke.

“Whether they had over-inflated, under-inflated or properly inflated footballs, I think they’d be OK with Tom Brady,” Boselli said. “I think it’s a big deal, because out of the spirit of the game and following the spirit of the rules, I think it’s important. But I think they’re winning that football game either way. But it’s important people follow the rules.”

Some have called for the suspension of Belichick or Brady from the Super Bowl. A person with knowledge of the NFL’s deliberations said it is “too early” to determine potential penalties.

“A deflated football is an advantage for a quarterback to throw and a receiver to catch in the conditions they played in Sunday,” said former Washington general manager Charley Casserly, who once sat on the NFL’s rule-making Competition Committee. “Regardless of that, if the ball is deflated below what it’s supposed to be, that’s a huge issue. If one team has deflated balls playing at any point, especially in bad weather, that’s a huge advantage. And the Patriots should be punished.”

In other developments Wednesday:

 The Los Angeles Times reported New England’s 12 footballs were inspected twice at halftime, using different pressure gauges, and officials found the balls were not sufficiently inflated.

A source told WEEI.com that the Patriots used 12 backup balls for the second half after issues were found with most of the originals. Patriots spokesman Stacey James confirmed that the team had 24 balls total available, WEEI reported.

 The Colts raised concerns to the NFL about the possibility that the Patriots were using deflated footballs in the Nov. 16 regular-season game between the two teams, according to a report from ESPN.

The Colts notified the NFL, according to the report, and the league was aware of the issue going into the AFC championship game.

 The Ravens tipped off the Colts going into the AFC title game about the Patriots potentially doctoring the air in footballs, according to Jay Glazer of FOX Sports, who said the NFL was already planning to inspect the balls at halftime.

But Baltimore Coach John Harbaugh said on a conference call that the Ravens didn’t notice if the Patriots deflated their offensive footballs in the AFC divisional playoff game won by New England on Jan. 10.

“(The NFL) did call some of our people about it, and as far as I know – I didn’t know exactly what the conversations were – but our guys answered honestly,” he said. “We did not notice anything. We never had a ball that they were using on offense, so we don’t know anything about that in our game. We didn’t have a chance to handle any of their offensive footballs.”

– Information from multiple news services contributed to this report.