Conspiracy theorists can start lining up. Those waiting to cash their tickets on the New England Patriots finishing the regular season undefeated can do the same in the Las Vegas sports books.
One group thinks it has good reason to smell something fishy. The other knows it has good reason to start celebrating early.
It won't be official until sometime late in the evening of Dec. 29, but start spreading the news. After an escape Monday night that would have made Houdini proud, the New England Patriots will go 16-0 and become the first team to finish a season undefeated since the 1972 Miami Dolphins.
I'm not exactly stepping out on a ledge predicting that. After all, the Patriots are 12-0 and favored by nearly two touchdowns against Pittsburgh this weekend in one of their two toughest remaining games.
There's another reason for the Patriots to win them all, one that will loom larger with each passing Sunday. That one has conspiracy types beginning to look under every rock to see if the fix could possibly be in.
Some members of the Baltimore Ravens think so. Hard to fault them after a bizarre series of plays turned what looked like certain victory into defeat and left them fuming at both the calls and the attitude of the referees.
``It's hard to go out there and play the Patriots and the refs at the same time,'' cornerback Chris McAlister said. ``They put the crown on top of them. They want them to win. They won.''
Laughable as that might seem in a league which prides itself on an image that everything is always on the up-and-up, it may not be too far-fetched. Almost to a man, the Ravens seemed to think it was not just fate lined up against them in Monday night's 27-24 loss.
Just the week before the Patriots seemed to get another break when a questionable touchdown pass with eight seconds left in the first half against the Eagles wasn't even reviewed in the booth, a decision that left Philadelphia fans steaming.
Silly? Maybe. But the NFL has only itself to blame for the perception even existing.
That's because there is money to be made if the Patriots go undefeated, big money, and not just the kind handed over the counter at the sports books.
No, the league isn't raiding its rainy-day fund to take the Patriots to run the table, a bet that is increasingly popular in Vegas. But a lot is riding on whether the Patriots are unbeaten going into the Dec. 29 game against the New York Giants.
The NFL wants it to be must-see TV, but to see it you must watch the league's own NFL Network. It's one of eight games the league kept for itself this year, and one which some 70 million households won't be able to see because of a bitter dispute the NFL is having with cable companies.
The more valuable the game, the more leverage the NFL figures it will have to force cable operators to carry the network on the lucrative basic cable tier. By far the most valuable game left this year will almost surely be Pats/Giants.
Take away the historic angle and it becomes a meaningless game between two teams most likely resting their stars for the playoffs. Make it mean something big and the NFL has a golden opportunity to force the hands of the cable companies.
The stakes are huge. If the NFL signs up all the major cable companies, it could be looking at revenues perhaps as high as $1 billion a year just for the network itself.
So do the referees have instructions to make sure the Patriots get the benefit of the doubt on crucial calls so they remain unbeaten? Hardly.
NFL officials have historically been unimpeachable, and not even the craziest of the conspiracy crazies have any evidence that there is a Tim Donaghy out there.
Then again, might they be subtly influenced by the rich intersection of history and money to bend just a little at just the right time?
Sure seemed that way Monday night to a lot of casual viewers when the Patriots survived three apparent fourth-down stops by Baltimore on their final drive to score the game winner on a pass that could have been called either way.
Sure seemed that way to Ravens linebacker Bart Scott, who was penalized 30 yards for yelling at the referees and throwing a ref's flag after the winning touchdown.
It was a brutal loss for the Ravens, who were hoping to salvage a dismal season by winning their biggest game of the year. They might be excused for reacting the way they did, though it's not likely the NFL will excuse what they had to say.
Fines will be had, mouths will be zipped, and the Patriots will move on.
Tim Dahlberg is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at

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