The Patriots paid a steep price for Deflategate, but it keeps getting steeper. The latest cost?

Jimmy Garoppolo.

The more you think about it, the easier it becomes to draw a straight line between the Indianapolis Colts accusing the Pats of doctoring footballs during the 2014 AFC title game and the decision to dump Garoppolo on the 49ers nearly three years later for the absurdly low return of a second-round pick.

The ramifications could reverberate throughout the franchise for the next decade. In addition to robbing the Pats of Tom Brady’s successor, the deal could hasten the departure of Hall of Fame coach and architect Bill Belichick, now that he’s staring at a future without a quarterback.

The trickle-down effect would be more like a tidal wave, starting with the exodus of coordinators and coaches, two of whom — Josh McDaniels and Matt Patricia — could depart next month for head coaching jobs.

What does this have to do with Deflategate? What follows is simply my theory, but it starts with owner Robert Kraft. Follow along . . .

In the two days between Indianapolis reporter Bob Kravitz breaking the story and ESPN’s Chris Mortensen reporting that 11 of 12 footballs were significantly underinflated, the Patriots hunkered down.

Besides Brady’s dismissive chuckles on Kirk & Callahan, the Pats went radio silent. Pressure immediately mounted for owner Robert Kraft to speak, but the inaccurate PSI numbers in the ESPN report were clouding public perception and so the organization remained mum while formulating a response.

Belichick and Brady addressed the controversy during their Wednesday press conferences. Belichick said he had no explanation and punted to his QB. When asked directly if he’s a cheater, Brady less than forcefully responded, “I don’t believe so.”

Three days later, Belichick amped up the drama with his Mona Lisa Vito press conference. The gist: learn the Ideal Gas Law, because science explains everything.

By this point, one voice remained silent: Kraft. The heat intensified on one of the NFL’s most influential owners to say something, anything, about his superstar quarterback. Fans wanted an aggressive counterattack, particularly after Belichick’s nothing-to-see-here defense.

And so that Monday in Arizona, just after landing at the Super Bowl, a simmering Kraft unloaded on the NFL and demanded an apology if the league couldn’t prove its allegations.

The fans loved it. His fellow owners? Not so much. The ensuing months would be marked by heated rhetoric and escalating hostility on both sides, with the Pats employing what one local media personality described as the “deny-deny-accuse” defense. It left a lot of scorched earth.

For months, the Patriots stayed on the attack. Their media friends accused a handful of league officials of acting as an anti-Pats deep state. The team questioned the accuracy of the gauges used to measure the air pressure. It released the Wells Report in Context. The fusillade of defiance was unrelenting.