By Ernie Palladino
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Let’s get hypothetical for a moment.

Let’s say the NFL finds Bill Belichick guilty of “Deflate-Gate” — his latest, alleged breach of sportsmanlike conduct.

Imagine that he goes on to beat the Seahawks next Sunday playing it strictly by Hoyle, or as close to it as New England’s hooded evil genius ever gets to it. The NFL hands down a punishment similar to the one for “SpyGate” — $500,000 for him, $250,000 and a first-round draft pick from the Patriots. Maybe, even, Roger Goodell hits him with the one-year suspension Sean Payton got for “BountyGate” in New Orleans.

Regardless of punishment, the Vince Lombardi Trophy — Belichick’s fourth — would still preside in the Patriots’ trophy case. Nothing would change that. No wins would be wiped off Belichick’s record and no wins would have to be reinstated a few years later. After all, this is not the NCAA.

So the question becomes whether a few pounds of pressure in a football were worth all this suspicion, embarrassment and possible punishment to Belichick and the Patriots. The answer, of course, is yes — at least in Belichick’s mind. And that’s the place all this started, anyway.

Belichick, you see, is indeed a genius. Always was, as far back as his days coaching Lawrence Taylor, Harry Carson, Carl Banks, Leonard Marshall, Mark Collins and the host of others who played on Bill Parcells’ defenses. Very smart man.

Smarter than smart, actually. He knows the rulebook front to back. He understands the fine gradients of legality. While generally staying within its limits — he clearly stepped over the line when he videoed opponents’ sideline signals — he plays it so close to the edge that the things he does often look illegal.

That’s what separates him from so many of the other smart guys in the NFL. If it can be done, Belichick will do it. You don’t like it, change the rule. You catch me, fine me. It’s worth it.

Just this year, we listened to Baltimore coach John Harbaugh scream about a third-quarter formation where Belichick lined up four offensive lineman and set an ineligible running back split wide. Deceptive, yes. Illegal? No. But pretty darned close, especially considering the back, Shane Vereen, declared himself ineligible only seconds before the snap.

The officials did throw a flag, only it was on the irate Harbaugh for unsportsmanlike conduct after he stormed onto the field.

There’s a good chance the rules committee will tweak the wording of its substitution rules to avoid future occurrences. But this year, Belichick was legal.

Just like he was when his Giants defensive backs beat the daylights out of Andre Reed in Super Bowl XXV, or when his Patriots nearly turned Peyton Manning’s go-to guy, Marvin Harrison, into a bloody mess in the 2003 AFC championship game. Not coincidentally, the NFL began its re-emphasis (obsession?) of the illegal contact, holding and pass interference regulations the following season.

Sometimes he tests the rules and the refs let him off the hook. It happened Oct. 16, when linebacker Dont’a Hightower lined up directly over Jets long snapper Tanner Purdum as Nick Folk got set for a potential game-winning 58-yard field goal at Gillette Stadium. Totally illegal for safety reasons, but go ahead. Try it anyway. It should have been a five-yard penalty. Instead, the official simply moved Hightower to the side, and Chris Jones blocked the kick. Jets lose, 27-25.

It’s all a calculated risk to Belichick. Bend the rules to the breaking point? Always. Shatter them into little pieces? Sometimes. SpyGate proved that one. But that was back in 2007. The intervening years have seen his team win the AFC East six out of seven times, despite losing that first-round pick in ’08. He’s going to his second Super Bowl since then.

Did he order those balls deflated? It would surprise no one if the NFL found him culpable.

Will anyone in New England care a lick that suspicion hangs over their head coach if the Pats beat Seattle on Feb. 1?

Not a one, despite the phony contrition that Bob Kraft and Belichick might express after a guilty rendering.

Are the blemished character and organizational embarrassment worth it all? Well, the British whined about Washington’s hit-and-run tactics way back when. The geniuses care more about gamesmanship than sportsmanship.

The scoreboard is all that matters to Belichick; the records, the constant postseason presence, the trophy case.

The end result, an opportunity to take home another Lombardi Trophy, makes everything else worthwhile to the mad genius his victims call “Beli-Cheat.”