Tom Brady, the handsome pitchman of a quarterback who has won MVPs with his arm and hearts with his megawatt smile, was asked the question no athlete wants to face. As he stood in front of a packed news conference Thursday to address reports that the New England Patriots used deflated footballs to gain an illegal advantage in Sunday's AFC Championship Game, his very integrity and legacy were called into focus with just four words:

Are you a cheater?

"I don't believe so," Brady said almost sheepishly as he professed innocence and ignorance during a 30-minute session with reporters in Foxborough, Mass., that at times seemed to have him more rattled than he has ever looked on a football field.

"I didn't alter the ball in any way," he said but was unable to explain how all 12 of the team's game balls from the first half were below the league-mandated minimum of 12.5 pounds per square inch of pressure when measured at halftime. According to ESPN reports, 11 of the 12 measured two or more pounds lighter, and all 12 footballs were replaced for the second half.

The NFL is continuing its investigation, having spoken with members of the Patriots and Indianapolis Colts staffs. Investigators have not spoken with Brady, he said. They are likely accumulating facts before interrogating the quarterback, who is appearing more and more like the chief suspect despite his denials.

Even Bill Belichick seemed to pass the mess off to Brady when he spoke Thursday morning.

"Tom's personal preferences on his footballs are something that Tom can talk about in much better detail than I could possibly provide," Belichick said.

According to an NBC News report, Brady spoke with his teammates Wednesday about the situation and told them he prefers his footballs "a certain way." He did not discuss those conversations with reporters but did address how he likes the footballs he selects for game use.

He said he thinks 12.5 psi is the perfect inflation for a football — rules stipulate that balls must be inflated between 12.5 and 13.5 psi — and he picked out 24 such footballs several hours before the game. After that, the footballs would have been brought to the NFL officials for inspection and returned to the team, properly inflated, only 10 or so minutes before kickoff.

"When I pick those footballs out, at that point, to me, they're perfect," Brady said. "I don't want anyone touching the balls after that. I don't want anyone rubbing them, putting any air in them, taking any air out. To me, those balls are perfect, and that's what I expect when I show up on the field."

Brady said he didn't notice any difference in the balls used in the first half. But someone did. After Colts linebacker D'Qwell Jackson intercepted a pass and brought the ball to the sideline, Colts equipment staff suspected it was underinflated and alerted a chain of command that resulted in testing the footballs at halftime.

A source told Newsday this week that the Colts already were suspicious of illegal footballs being used by the Patriots after encountering some they thought were underinflated during a game Nov. 16.

According to Fox Sports, the Baltimore Ravens, who played the Patriots in the previous week's AFC divisional round, tipped off the Colts to the possibility as well. Fox Sports also reported that the NFL was prepared to test the pressure in the footballs at halftime even if the Colts had not found the Jackson football.