By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston

BOSTON (CBS) — Tom Brady got walloped in a federal appeals court last week. I still think he’ll ultimately walk away a winner.

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Provided the three judges assigned to the case can get over their tabloidesque fascination with a cell phone that no longer exists, and provided they actually embark to do the job that’s being asked of them, then they will ultimately rule in favor of Tom Brady.

For all the press about how badly Brady got slammed Thursday — and believe me, Jeffrey Kessler was indeed leaking all over that courtroom floor — it all overlooked the fact that Judge Richard Berman’s ruling to vacate the four-game suspension was never really discussed. In the 15 pages and 5,700-plus words that I furiously transcribed in that courtroom, I captured someone saying “Berman” just twice. Both times, it was Kessler saying Judge Berman’s name, and the two mentions came in the same sentence. In the hour-long session, that’s the only mention of Berman I recorded.

Instead, the judges’ curiosity in this most-bizarre case shone through. They rattled off question after question about the perceived advantage of playing with an underinflated football, about the uniform policy, and of course about the famed cell phone.

But, well, with respect to the judges, that’s not what they’re there for.

Tom Brady is not on trial. His guilt or innocence, while wholly fascinating, is not relevant in this matter. In fact, Brady’s own lawyer stated that he’s accepting the facts of the case presented by the NFL for the purpose of making his arbitration-based arguments. Kessler was not hired to dispute the evidence against Brady; he was hired to put a spotlight on Roger Goodell’s failures as a fair and capable arbitrator.

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Judge Barrington Parker said it himself — it’s not a judiciary proceeding and it’s not about perceived guilt or innocence. That ship — The S.S. Ted Wells, a $5 million tugboat — sailed long ago.

Certainly, the intrigue from the judges makes sense, but frankly, these three are a little late to the party. The disputed facts of this case were fodder for talk shows through most of 2015, yet by the fall, most folks had had their fill.

These judges, understandably, might not have been tuned in to every twist and turn from the ridiculous real-life soap opera, because they presumably had more important matters pressing on their minds. But now that this joke of a case is in their courtroom (really, air pressure in a football, in federal appeals court?), they’re playing a bit of catch-up. That’s what we saw on Thursday.

And while the risk of losing some or all of the case is now very real for Brady and Kessler, they still hold an overwhelming advantage to win.

Remember, for as bad as Thursday’s court session looked for Brady’s camp, it is the Brady side that still has the most powerful asset in the case at hand: a 40-page ruling from Judge Berman which definitively stated three different reasons why the four-game suspension had to be vacated. And for that thorough ruling to be overturned, it would mean that the 72-year-old judge with nearly five decades’ worth of experience in the legal field decided to veer from the guiding legal principles and ended up botching the entire ruling. Logically, that seems an unlikely scenario.

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Berman cited lack of notice, denial of the opportunity to question a co-lead investigator at the appeal hearing, and lack of access to investigative files which the NFL’s lawyers had used in preparation for the appeal hearing.

Berman wrote:

“The Court finds that no player alleged or found to have had a general awareness of the inappropriate ball deflation activities of others or who allegedly schemed with others to let air out of footballs in a championship game and also had not cooperated in an ensuing investigation, reasonably could be on notice that their discipline would (or should) be the same as applied to a player who violated the NFL Policy on Anabolic Steroids and Related Substances. Brady had no such notice.”

That statement still holds 100 percent true today, even after the three appellate judges focused much of their attention on a destroyed cell phone on Thursday.

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Berman also cited Kaplan v. Alfred Dunhill of London, Inc. with this: “The deference due an arbitrator does not extend so far as to require a district court to countenance, much less confirm, an award obtained without the requisites of fairness or due process.”

And, when the judges examine the arbitration process which was so evidently flawed from the get-go, they’ll have to see precisely what Berman saw. And even if they don’t somehow, Berman left the following charges unresolved in his ruling back in September:

— Goodell was “evidently partial” as arbitrator.

— Goodell upheld suspension based on factual conclusions which were not in the Wells report. The Wells report, of course, was the basis for the issuance of the four-game suspension in the first place.

— Goodell publicly lauded the reliability of the Wells report, and so he was “locked” into supporting the findings of the Wells report.

So, even if the judges do decide to send the case back to Judge Berman’s court, it seems clear that Berman left himself plenty to work with.

But, more than likely, it won’t get to that point. The judges focused on the cell phone in part because Kessler himself made it an issue. On that fight, Kessler appeals to be fighting a losing battle. But, as can clearly be seen in Berman’s ruling, that cell phone played no key role in Berman’s decision, and it should likewise play an insignificant role in the upholding or reversal of the federal judge’s decision.

And what Judges Robert Katzmann, Barrington Parker and Denny Chin will discover is that even if the destroyed cell phone was a “smoking gun” of sorts, there is no precedent for a player receiving a four-game suspension for disrupting or outwardly obstructing a league investigation. In fact, there’s evidence in black and white that states even when someone lies to investigators, there is no history of any player receiving a suspension for such an act.

Former commissioner Paul Tagliabue served as the arbitrator for the Saints players’ appeals following “Bountygate,” and in it, Tagliabue agreed with Goodell that Anthony Hargove may have lied to investigators. Yet Tagliabue still found the suspension unwarranted, based on a lack of precedence.

“The context of previous NFL punishment for obstruction suggests that a seven-game suspension is unprecedented and unwarranted here,” Tagliabue wrote. “In December 2010, the NFL fined Brett Favre $50,000 — but did not suspend him — for obstruction of a League sexual harassment investigation. Although not entirely comparable to the present matter, this illustrates the NFL’s practice of fining, not suspending players, for serious violations of this type.”

Tagliabue went on to write these two lines, which is most applicable to the case of Brady and the destroyed phone:

“There is no evidence of a record of past suspensions based purely on obstructing a League investigation. In my forty years of association with the NFL, I am aware of many instances of denials in disciplinary proceedings that proved to be false, but I cannot recall any suspension for such fabrication.”

Tagliabue also noted that it can’t be determined that the player in question was definitely lying, so imposing discipline based on the accusation of lying would be a specious practice.

Applying the same logic to Brady, it’s clear that for as much as the cell phone provides a controversial talking point, it never has been applicable to this case.

Likewise, no player in NFL history has ever been suspended for being “generally aware” of another person’s actions, and certainly not the actions of a stadium employee.

As “casual” or “even down and dirty” as Judge Parker may feel arbitration matters may be, precedent still matters. And now, as ever, Goodell and the NFL have none.

Provided these judges really dig their teeth into all of the factors that led to Judge Berman’s decision, there will be no way they can summarily dismiss the entirety of Berman’s 40-page ruling.

Even though he wasn’t present in court, Brady took a blind-side hit to the spine last Thursday afternoon. We’ve all seen him shake those off and pop back up countless times before. This time ought to be no different.

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You can email Michael Hurley or find him on Twitter @michaelFhurley.