Any remaining doubts that Bill Belichick got off easy should have evaporated by the end of the first quarter.
It was New England 14, San Diego 0 at the point Sunday night and it was already apparent things were only going to get worse for the Chargers and the rest of the NFL from there on out.
``What it was, was a trap for us, really,'' San Diego running back LaDainian Tomlinson said shortly after the Patriots put the finishing touches on a 38-14 win.
What he meant is that any coach worth his motivational salt, let alone a master manipulator like Belichick, would have no problem lighting a fire under his team after the events of last week. ``Spygate'' was bulletin-board material, all right, in block letters 4 feet high.
``So I wasn't surprised at all,'' Tomlinson summed up, ``by how well they played.''
Whether the same can be said for commissioner Roger Goodell is anyone's guess. Like everyone else who follows football, he must have known that Belichick and the Patriots' organization were going all-in this season. After winning three Super Bowls in four seasons, then missing out on the past two, their plan coming into this season was to win it all now. That's why owner Robert Kraft opened his wallet, trading for Randy Moss, signing three other receivers and handing Adalius Thomas $7 million a year.
So how much, really, did Goodell think he was going to accomplish by taking away a likely No. 1 draft pick next season (the Patriots have two) and fining Belichick $500,000 and the franchise an additional $250,000?
Based on scant evidence, even he would have to conclude: not enough.
Belichick acknowledged as much - in his typically cryptic way.
``At times it was challenging,'' he said about his players, ``but they stayed focused.''
That was putting it mildly.
Tom Brady connected on 5-of-6 passes in the Pats' efficient opening drive, presumably without any help from New England's crack video staff. Moss wound up catching two touchdown passes and Thomas justified some of the hype that followed him to New England by intercepting an ill-advised pass from San Diego's Philip Rivers and returning it 65 yards for another score.
As the clock ticked off the final seconds, Brady, Moss and Thomas joined a long line of New England's other stalwarts congratulating Belichick like he was the father of the bride at a wedding. In fact, the only thing more impressive than the game plan Belichick put together to stymie the Chargers was how thoroughly he masked his satisfaction afterward.
When someone asked whether this had been one of his most difficult weeks as a coach, Belichick answered with a straight face, ``The Chargers are a tough football team. They're not easy to prepare for.''
But that preparation is what Belichick does better than anyone else in the business. And if Goodell wanted to put a dent in the Patriots, that's where he should have aimed his stick and suspended Belichick for a game or two. Because if reports are true that Belichick recently signed a contract extension paying him in the $5 million range through 2013, the least effective route in hitting him is his wallet. And the only way he gets the message is if it costs his team some games.
Just one loss could make the difference between the Patriots going on the road during the postseason or playing at home. A loss to the Chargers might have significantly altered the playoff picture, since they're expected to push the Patriots and Colts in the AFC title race despite their early season scoring problems.
There's little hope of slowing the Patriots at the moment, though ``Spygate'' may have legs. Whispers continue to circulate that the Patriots defensive linemen may have been stealing opponents' radio signals ahead of the snap, which would explain league reports that the team was using more radio frequencies against the Jets than league rules allow.
Goodell noted that both the amount of the fines and likely penalizing New England a No. 1 draft pick were ``unprecedented,'' but reserved the right to pile more punishment on the organization if more information became available. He also said he expects full cooperation regarding some other materials he requested from the team.
``I'm very confident the Patriots are going to abide by the rules,'' Goodell said in a pregame interview on NBC. ``They understand that the consequences could increase.''
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Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitkeap.org

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