By Matt Dolloff, CBS Boston

BOSTON (CBS) — Much of the plot of the Tarantino classic Pulp Fiction centers around a mysterious, glimmering briefcase. You never learn its contents and it remains one of cinema’s greatest unresolved questions. It is perhaps the ultimate example of a “MacGuffin,” a plot device whose sole purpose is to advance the plot and motivate the characters, but ultimately has no consequence to the plot in and of itself. In other words, you didn’t need to know the contents of the briefcase to know that Pulp Fiction kicks ass.

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Five hundred days ago, America plunged down the rabbit hole known as DeflateGate, a “scandal” that originally centered around the Patriots’ alleged post-inspection deflation of footballs and Tom Brady’s general awareness of some kind of scheme. As DeflateGate hits day No. 500, it has become abundantly clear that the footballs have always been the Pulp Fiction briefcase of this story. Whether Brady or the Patriots did anything or not, no matter what side you took 17 months ago, the whole thing has never, ever, ever actually been about deflated footballs.

Yet, the talk of PSI, gas laws, and Why isn’t anyone talking about the Colts’ footballs??? rages on.

It’s OK to believe both that: 1) The Patriots were probably messing with the footballs in some way, and 2) The violation itself did not matter in the NFL’s grand scheme. They merely needed a device to advance their own plot, and thanks to a fateful email from Colts GM Ryan Grigson, they had it.

The violation could have been sideline texts. It could have been stickum. It could have been any other minuscule edge that just about every football player, coach, and executive works to gain – if you are to believe what common sense would dictate. The league’s 31 other owners needed Roger Goodell to deliver the “make-up call” for a perceived lack of punishment for Spygate, no matter what happened, and simply needed a reason to push the red button.

If the NFL truly cared about deflated footballs, they would have measured them before games more stringently. They would not have allowed referees to do their own PSI tampering, which appears to have happened during the Patriots’ 2014 game against the New York Jets. They would have been more transparent with their subsequent PSI testing, and released the results regardless of whose agenda it served. These things happened, and anyone who was paying attention knew that Goodell’s bloviating over “the integrity of the game” was never concerned with air pressure.

Yet, national (and certain local) media, along with fans of the other 31 teams who were desperate for a fresh opportunity to tear the Patriots’ empire down, ran with the deflation angle. “DeflateGate” was just too catchy of a name to resist, like a pop song that you can’t get out of your head. They became obsessed with finding out what was in the briefcase.

The Wells Report did just enough to give them an answer: Deflation became “more probable than not” and Brady was found to be “at least generally aware.” This result was treated as if Tarantino revealed that the briefcase contained the life force of Marcellus Wallace. This, somehow, became the indisputable evidence that gave the league latitude to drop a massive, unforgiving hammer on Brady and the team.

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It was around this same time that the league’s obvious plot against the Patriots began to unravel. Grigson’s email became public knowledge. The referees’ haphazard handling of footballs in the 2014 AFC Championship Game (and every other game before it) brought the very importance of PSI into question. Science explained the plausibility of natural deflation. The NFL, admitting it wasn’t aware of the Ideal Gas Law, handed down a draconian punishment for an equipment violation that normally would have drawn a fine of $5,787 for a first offense.

Yet, nobody outside of New England batted an eye. They were still obsessed with Jim McNally calling himself “the deflator” and the Patriots’ combative press conferences and the indelible “cheater” label that had long already been pinned like a scarlet ‘D’ on Brady and the team. DeflateGate had devolved into a sloppy sting operation, one-sided investigation, and generally Orwellian treatment of a hugely successful team – but visions of footballs and needles and cell phones still danced in everyone’s heads.

Just when the whole thing couldn’t have grown more absurd, the courts got involved. Briefs, appeals, testimonies, documents, millions of dead trees. A supposed PSI violation becomes a precedent-setting dispute between labor and management. Poor Michael Hurley becomes a real-life telling of Metallica’s “The Frayed Ends of Sanity.” The latest amicus briefs, filed by the AFL-CIO and prominent attorneys with experience in serious real-world issues, serve as concrete proof that DeflateGate has long gone beyond the issue of air pressure.

Yet, the reality was it was never about air pressure in the first place. And still, fans across the country cling to their “cheater” arguments like barnacles on a creaky rowboat. With Brady’s suspension reinstated, they strut around as if the whole idea of DeflateGate really was to stop those dastardly Patriots from gaining an unfair advantage over 31 other law-abiding organizations.

They still wonder what’s in the briefcase.

I’ll tell you what’s in there. … A league that unabashedly wielded the virtually unlimited power that the NFLPA regrettably granted it in the latest Collective Bargaining Agreement. A league of pipe-hitting owners armed with a pair of pliers and a blowtorch. A commissioner who received a shot of adrenaline to his blackened heart. And a country that, amazingly, still wants to know what’s causing that golden glow.

Five hundred days from now, DeflateGate will hopefully be in the rear view mirror by miles. Perhaps America will have woken up to the reality of the NFL’s practically totalitarian regime. Perhaps the national media will continue to slowly emerge from the PSI-induced haze and recognize what really happened, what the whole sham of DeflateGate was really about. But, unfortunately, much of the country is still chasing the wrong thing.

Because, just like the briefcase in Pulp Fiction, the contents of the Patriots’ footballs never truly mattered.

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Matt Dolloff is a writer for CBSBostonSports.com. His opinions do not necessarily reflect that of CBS or 98.5 The Sports Hub. Have a news tip or comment for Matt? Follow him on Twitter @mattdolloff and email him at mdolloff@985thesportshub.com.