INDIANAPOLIS — One sign inside Lucas Oil Stadium read: "We just assume you're cheating right now."
Another sign, "Cheaters exit here," was draped over the tunnel where the Patriots entered and exited the field. When Patriots players saw the sign, they complained, and the sign soon disappeared.
Colts fans were indeed salty. Outside, before the game, there were fans with deflated footballs. There were "Tom Brady sucks" signs. "Belichick cheats" signs.
In the media leading up to the game, there was a sense that this was an impending beatdown. A Patriot payback against the whistleblowers. This game was going to be ugly.
But something strange happened along the way. There was Colts pride. And maybe Patriots anger. But no coalescing of the two into anything we expected. Or, really, anything of significance.
What we got, instead, was the same Patriots beating of the Colts. All of the offseason drama resulted in the same pecking order. The Patriots are clearly better than the Colts. That is the final lesson from all of this. The most important of all. The Colts haven't made any significant gains on New England, and as long as Tom Brady is the quarterback and Bill Belichick is the coach, they won't.
In the end, there were no deflated footballs. There was no trash talk. No anger on the field. Just the continuing Patriots march toward another Super Bowl. And once again, they left the Colts in their non-deflated wake.
The way New England is playing, maybe that march will end with another perfect season. It's possible. They have that look. We've seen it before.
The Colts actually led at halftime and kept the game close. The Patriots ended up winning, 34-27, and this wasn't the complete atomization everyone expected. It wasn't as close as the score suggested, either. But it wasn't a killer.
The Colts played with smarts and aggression, but at times they flirted with rank desperation, such as the fourth-down fake-punt, swinging-gate play that will go down as easily one of the worst play calls in the history of professional, college or Pop Warner football.
That call made the butt-fumble look like The Catch.
That play also almost guarantees Chuck Pagano's dismissal at the end of the season.
The putrid fake caused the Colts as a team to screech to a complete stop. And everyone watching it laughed their asses off, the way you guffaw when Curly slips on a wet mop.
Pagano said the idea was to shift the line and catch the Patriots out of position. But because the Patriots aren't total idiots, they just sat there and watched the Colts self-destruct.
"I take full responsibility there," Pagano said. "I didn't do a good enough job communicating to the guys."
"I'm glad they did it," Patriots wide receiver Julian Edelman said of the play.
I bet he was.
What was clear, in talking to the players and reading between the lines from teammates who didn't want to throw each other under various buses, was the ball wasn't supposed to be snapped.
After the game, Luck said all of the right things, crediting the Patriots and saying his team could have done better. Luck also had a desperate look to him, as if to say: What does it take to beat this team?
You know what it takes? Someone from Krypton.
By now, we all know the sordid story of Deflategate. The last time these two teams met, in the AFC title game last season, New England destroyed the Colts. The Colts complained that the footballs were deflated, leading to one of the NFL's most historic rabbit holes of investigations, court cases, GIFs and ball jokes. The winners were Brady, late-night comedians and billable hours.
It all led to this moment, Sunday Night Football, which was supposed to be bloody and revenge-filled. The Patriots publicly avoided any revenge talk.
But two Patriots players described an interesting week leading up to the game. They say Brady was the same as he's always been—professional and focused.
What was interesting, these players said, was how many other players felt. They described a definite sense that the locker room wanted to annihilate the Colts for Brady. They described how some players believe Brady was put through, as one player told me Saturday, "one of the great injustices I've ever seen. We want to punish the team that caused that."
It's possible you saw some of that anger in Edelman once the game began. After he scored a 12-yard touchdown, Edelman threw the football with great vigor at the Colts' logo just outside the end zone. He seemed to be saying: Take that, whistleblowers.
Because the Patriots are the most closed ecosystem in all of sports, we will never truly know exactly what this week was like for New England, until Brady writes his tell-all book. What's clear is the ass-whuppin' almost everyone expected—and Patriots fans wanted—didn't quite materialize.
Indeed, something else happened. The Patriots ran into a Colts team with no fear. That truly didn't give a damn. That was loose. That was up for the challenge. Indianapolis tried an onside kick in the second quarter and Pagano coached aggressively all night.
The Colts' attitude seemed to be: We're not just going to let you punch us in the face and then go quietly into the night.
The Colts took a 14-10 second-quarter lead after Edelman, fresh off mangling his pinky earlier in the game, bobbled an easy catch, which landed in the hands of Colts defensive back Mike Adams, who returned it for a score. Hey, it's tough to catch fully inflated footballs with nine fingers.
We also saw, once again, the special Andrew Luck. Mostly, at least. He still looks somewhat bothered by that shoulder injury, but he threw quicker passes and was far more accurate.
However, it would be a huge mistake to say any single Colt was responsible for making this game pseudo-close. Many of us who predicted a glue-factory ending for the Colts underestimated the centrifuge that is pride.
In the end, however, the Patriots prevailed. The past year has shown us what we knew all along. It didn't matter in that title game what kind of footballs Brady used. He's that good.
Then, this season, as he has 15 total touchdowns and just one interception (not his fault) in five games, we still see the same thing. Brady is better than everyone. Brady could use manhole covers and he'd still beat the Colts. Especially when the Colts engage in special teams tomfoolery.
Nothing is slowing these Patriots since they won the Super Bowl. Not the courts. Not Ted Wells. And certainly not the Colts.
Mike Freeman covers the NFL for Bleacher Report.