The New England Patriots head into the homestretch of their pursuit of perfection every bit as reviled as they are respected, and every bit as suspect as they are superior.
They are models of excellence, as their 12-0 record unarguably affirms. Yet they are also another symbol of what's wrong with sports these days: convicted cheaters in an era in which some of the most impressive accomplishments in sports come with a potential asterisk.
With the remnants of 'Spygate' following them wherever they go, the Patriots are a hot topic in sports bars across America, where football fans wonder if they're seeing a legitimate pursuit of perfection, or just another illicitly enhanced effort to slither into the record books.
'It's just another one of those things that makes you leery,' said Tom Garcia, while watching last week's Packers-Cowboys game at a bar near Denver. 'You want to believe that what you see up front is what you get. It just makes you realize that you really don't know what goes on behind the scenes.'
In September, the NFL took away the Patriots' first-round draft pick, fined the team $250,000 and fined coach Bill Belichick another $500,000 after catching a Patriots video assistant taping from the sidelines during a game against the Jets in Week 1. A league rule prohibits clubs from using a video camera on the sidelines for any purpose - including recording signals relayed to opposing players on the field.
Since then, New England's perfect record has been followed by an asterisk in the minds of many - and more concretely in the New York Post, where the daily standings include a note reminding readers that the Patriots were nailed for cheating.
'It turned me off a little bit,' said Kevin Turner, a Patriots fan from California. 'Recording hand signals, it's just not right. If they did it again next year, I'd be a little less of a fan. But hopefully they've learned their lesson with the fine.'
So what's the big deal?
The legacy of cheating in sports involves hundreds of unwritten rules, hazy lines and shades of gray.
In baseball, stealing signals is widely viewed as a time-honored tradition that includes retribution in the form of a fastball into the ribs of the offending player during his next at-bat.
In basketball, the widely circulated term 'no harm, no foul,' implies a tacit acceptance that some forms of cheating will be allowed if it doesn't affect the outcome of the action being played out.
NASCAR has long been known for drivers and crew chiefs who will bend the rules and break them, to the point where nobody's ever quite sure what's legal and what's not, and what the regulations are on any given week.
The list goes on.
'If you're not cheating, you're not trying.'
'It's only cheating if you get caught.'
These homespun phrases, along with the unspoken wink-wink, nod-nod meanings underlying them, are as much a part of sports as referees, field goals and home runs.
'But if the NFL condones cheating and baseball doesn't do anything about steroids, you wonder if eventually those sports will go the way of boxing,' said Turner's friend, Carlos Garcia, commenting on a sport that has lost much of its credibility. 'I won't pay to watch a boxing match anymore.'
Greg Dale, a professor at Duke, said the Patriots case will get ample attention next spring in his Sports Ethics class.
'Certainly, some people are purists who say, 'Why can't they just line up and kick butt and may the best team win and let's do things by the letter and the spirit of the rules?' Dale said. 'There's definitely a little bit of a question about the validity of their unbeaten season because of this.'
Other than issuing a statement acknowledging he was at fault when the penalties were levied, Belichick has stayed mum on the topic.
In his defense, there are many who think the Patriots were simply using an enhanced version of what every NFL team does: looking for an easier way to glean information they eventually would have received by some other manner.
NFL coaches are famous for their 80-hour work weeks, much of which is spent in a projection room breaking down every play run by upcoming opponents in their previous games.
They're also notorious for signing backup players who have recently been cut from teams that they just happen to be facing that week. These signings happen not because Team A absolutely had to have another third-string safety, but because that safety knows Team B's playbook and, just as likely, its hand signals.
Notable comments came from Don Shula, coach of the 17-0 Dolphins of 1972, who in November told the New York Daily News, 'You would hate to have that attached to your accomplishments. They've got it. I guess you got the same thing as putting an asterisk by Barry Bonds' home run record.'
More recently, Shula has backed off those comments. During New England's most recent victory, 27-24 over Baltimore, the coach told ESPN he still thinks the Patriots are 'unbelievable.'
'And if they run the table, they should be given credit for running the table,' he said.
But Tony Dungy, the coach of an Indianapolis team that might have the best chance of derailing New England in the playoffs, was less diplomatic.
'They've won three Super Bowls. We're talking about them as maybe the best team ever,' Dungy said in a recent interview on HBO's 'Costas Now.' 'And to have something like that happen, it just lets people say, 'Oh, you know, this is how you win.' Or, 'This is OK, as long as you win.' And I didn't think it was good for the NFL.'
The NFL did its part, levying an unprecedented fine and handing down the gold standard of penalties by taking away a top draft choice.
By doing it, though, the league acknowledged the Patriots as cheaters, and the word comes up often during the conversation about their quest for perfection.
'That's why I don't like them, because of the cheating,' said Diane Frump, the bartender at The Tin Cup bar outside Kenosha, Wis.