By Steve Keating
PHOENIX (Reuters) - The New England Patriots escaped a winter blizzard to make their way to the Super Bowl city of Phoenix on Monday but there was no avoiding another storm as the mystery of the deflated footballs continued to swirl.
As snow blanketed the U.S. Northeast the Patriots stepped off their flight into the teeth of a full blown controversy as hundreds of media welcomed them with questions about an NFL investigation into their use of under-inflated footballs during a victory over Indianapolis that clinched a Super Bowl berth.
For over a week the Patriots have been hammered by questions about how 11 of 12 footballs used in the AFC Championship game did not meet NFL standards.
On Monday the team blasted back, with team owner Robert Kraft sent out to take on the media.
Defiant and confrontational, a grim-faced Kraft opened the Patriots first Super Bowl news conference with a scathing rebuke of the media and the league for questioning his team's integrity and that of coach Bill Belichick and quarterback Tom Brady.
Both Brady, a three-time Super Bowl winner, and Belichick have denied any knowledge or involvement in what has become known in the American media as 'Deflategate'.
"I want to make it clear that I believe unconditionally that the New England Patriots have done nothing inappropriate in this process or in violation of NFL rules," Kraft told a packed conference hall.
"Tom, Bill and I have been together for 15 years, they are my guys, they are part of my family ... and I have never known them to lie to me.
"It bothers me greatly that their reputations and integrity and by association that of our team has been called into question this past week."
Kraft said that once the NFL's investigation, being led by Ted Wells and which is expected to last several more weeks, is completed that he will expect an apology from the NFL.
"If the Wells investigation is not able to definitively determine that our organization tampered with the air pressure in the footballs I would expect and hope that the league would apologize to our entire team and in particular coach Bill Belichick and Tom Brady for what they have had to endure this past week," said the Patriots billionaire owner.
"I am disappointed in how this entire matter has been handled and reported upon.
"We expect hard facts as opposed to circumstantial leaked evidence to drive the conclusion of this investigation."
While Kraft met the controversy head on, Belichick had a different game plan, simply refusing to answer any questions on the subject.
Belichick, who was fined the league maximum of $500,000 in 2007 for videotaping an opponent's defensive signals, followed Kraft to the podium and said his only focus was on Sunday's Super Bowl foes Seattle.
"My attention is totally turned now and focused on the Seattle Seahawks and our game Sunday and that is where it is going to stay for this week," said Belichick. "This week it is all about Seattle."
(Editing by Peter Rutherford)