By Larry Fine
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. (Reuters) - By the third quarter of Sunday's AFC title game, Gillette Stadium erupted in a "Where is Roger?" chant while the New England Patriots were well on their way to clinching a record ninth trip to the Super Bowl.
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, who has been conspicuous in his absence from New England's home games the last few years, has long been held as a villain by the team's supporters, just as outside their borders the remarkable Patriots are viewed by many as cheaters.
"They've got some priors, so it certainly creates that," Boston sports columnist Dan Shaughnessy told Reuters about the loathing of the Pats by rival NFL teams and their fans before New England's 36-17 rout of the Pittsburgh Steelers.
"Their success certainly engenders jealousy. They want a reason why they can't catch up to beat them."
Costly penalties were imposed on the Patriots by Goodell a decade ago after they were caught videotaping an opposing team's sideline signals to break the code in what is known as Spygate.
Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, who will seek a fifth Super Bowl title on Feb. 5 against the Atlanta Falcons, was suspended for the first four games this season stemming from a plot to deflate footballs used in the AFC title game two years ago.
Goodell, who was often spotted at Patriots home games, has not attended a contest at Gillette Stadium since the Deflategate controversy erupted in 2015.
Patriots owner Robert Kraft blew off some steam over the Deflategate punishments in a recent New York Times interview.
"Sometimes, the league really messes up, and I think they really messed this up badly," said Kraft, who said he put up with the sanctions for the sake of the partnership of team owners.
"There’s jealousy, there’s envy, there’s stupidity. Sometimes, life is unfair and you have to suck it up and move on and not use it as an excuse."
Beyond the celebrated scandals are a litany of other dirty trick accusations, such as spying on practices, messing with opposing teams' radio communications during games and other bits of gamesmanship.
A 2015 Sports Illustrated report detailed how at least 19 NFL teams have plotted to foil foul play by the Patriots.
They have hired extra guards to bolster security, cleared out trash cans, swept hotel rooms, locker rooms and coaching booths for listening devices and offered misinformation by running fake plays at walk-throughs, the report said.
No listening devices have ever been found.
The poised, polished Bill Belichick-coached Patriots are in their heads, and New England marches on.
The complaints have had a boomerang effect on the Patriots, the NFL's most successful team since the turn of the century with Super Bowl wins in 2002, 2004, 2005 and 2015.
"You know the fan base here has developed an 'us against the world' feeling, like they're the victims. It's an interesting dynamic," said Shaughnessy.
"When you talk to ex-players they seem to share that everything is noticed and used and underlined. They know what's being said and written about them."
If the Steelers seemed a step slow in covering the Patriots receiving corps on Sunday, Pittsburgh fans might point to the false fire alarm sounded at their team hotel around 3:30 a.m. (0830 GMT) the day of the game.
While it is a standard trick for fans of a home team to pull a fire alarm, and one such individual was arrested for Sunday's incident, former Steelers All-Pro guard Alan Faneca tweeted that Pittsburgh players should be used to it.
"Never played a game in NE where that did not happen. Every single time,” tweeted Faneca (Alan Faneca@afan66).
(Editing by Frank Pingue)