In the wake of a one-sided victory, the NFL’s New England Patriots stand accused of letting the air out of their footballs. It’s a charge that carries a lesson to which producers can surely relate.

If you missed the NFL Conference Championship games Sunday, you’re surely in the minority. And you missed one heckuva comeback by the Seattle Seahawks (can’t resist a little gloating).

For footballs fans in the Northwest and Northeast, it was an epic day marked by unbridled excitement and wild celebrations. For fans in Wisconsin and Indiana, not so much.

What happened in the aftermath of the New England Patriots’ blowout victory, however, is a development not exclusive to football, one that illustrates a dynamic that animal agriculture regularly experiences: The triumph of perception over reality.

Here’s what I mean.

Minutes after the Pats finished off the Colts, Twitter began crackling with allegations that New England had deflated the game balls, (allegedly) making it easier for the team’s receivers to handle Tom Brady’s fastballs on what was a cold, wet, windy evening in Foxboro.

Shortly afterwards, the legion of football analysts, who earn way too much telling us what we already know and re-hashing what we just finished watching chimed in with “breaking news:” An investigation over Deflate Gate was underway.

Was there any hard evidence (no pun intended) of such cheating? No — just allegations. Any proof? None at that point. Any reliable sources? Absolutely not.

In fact, as was later confirmed, each team uses its own footballs exclusively, all of which are prepared before the kickoff by team personnel, inspected by NFL officials and then kept secured on the sidelines during the game to prevent tampering.

Would it be possible to somehow deflate those footballs? Theoretically, yes. Practically, no way.

Yet virtually all the sports reporters, who pride themselves on their status as professional journalists — not just talking heads — began reporting the “controversy” as if a criminal indictment had already been issued.

The damage is done

To be fair, the Patriots organization had been previously convicted of cheating 10 years ago by illegally taping an opponent’s defensive signals from the opposite sideline, a practice specifically outlawed by the NFL. Like an ex-con with a sheet, it’s tempting to assume that a past offender is simply repeating the bad behavior that was previously censured.

But there is a two-part dynamic here that is disturbing.

For one, the media are all too eager to start spreading rumors and innuendos long before anything definitive is established. Rather than carefully vetting the allegations, they rush to be the first to start spreadin’ the news — even though it’s not news when nothing has been substantiated.

More importantly, when reports like this one start circulating on social media, and then get endorsed by cable news anchors anxious to pile on, the damage becomes permanent. Even though this particular story is likely going nowhere, the mere fact that accusations of cheating have been made has football fans burning up online comment boards debating whether the Pats should forfeit their victory or just be handed a seriously large fine.

It’s ridiculous, and worse, the damage is irreversible. Even if a week from now the NFL announces that its investigation indicated that nobody deflated any of the balls — after all, on a cold, wet night it’s not like a football sitting on wet turf couldn’t deflate a bit — the taint of foul play by the Patriots will linger virtually indefinitely.

That’s the problem with unfounded accusations of wrongdoing: They stick even after evidence exonerates the parties involved.

That’s why activists work so hard to accuse producers and packers of all kinds of egregious violations, from “torturing” animals to beating their livestock to deliberately inflicting pain and suffering on the very property responsible for the profitability of their businesses. Even if subsequent investigations uncover nothing illegal or irresponsible, the original charge tends to stick like something nasty on the soles of your shoes.

The tactic has zero credibility, but you know what? It works.

Long after this current flap over deflated footballs is put to rest, millions of fans will respond by referencing Deflate Gate as if an actual transgression occurred. The Patriots’ legacy as cheaters will be hardened even further and no one will remember the conclusion to the story.

Only that somebody accused of cheating probably was guilty.

Especially if you happen to be from Indianapolis.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Dan Murphy, a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator.