Column: How Pats ball boy became America's Most Wanted
The most wanted rule-breaker in America today is a New England Patriots ball boy.
So whether you think ''Deflategate'' is a big deal or not, consider this: If the allegations are true, the fall guy won't be the quarterback married to a supermodel or the multimillionaire coach.
Just like the last time the Patriots were caught cheating, a more expendable member of the family will take the blame.
Last time, that was Matt Walsh, the only guy fired after ''Spygate,'' when the Patriots videotaped other teams' coaches to steal hand signals. Coach Bill Belichick said he interpreted the rules wrongly, claimed he couldn't pick video staffer Walsh out of a lineup, paid his fine and continued coaching as if nothing had happened.
Now, the Patriots are accused of deflating footballs to make them easier to throw and catch. Once again, the organization has gone hush-hush from top to bottom, including how the footballs are handled.
But somewhere, locked inside a janitor's closet somewhere deep in the bowels of Gillette Stadium, there's probably another young staffer waiting to be sacrificed. He's the ball boy the Patriots are sure to single out as the mastermind behind it all. You can imagine him, texting his parents.
''Won't see you for dinner tonight - or maybe ever. We got caught. Somebody's got to take the fall. Can you tell Dad and write a note to school and explain I won't be back?''
He probably thought catching passes from Tom Brady would be all fun and games. But when there's trouble, the Patriots circle the wagons. Ball boys don't get invited inside. The best he can hope for at this point is a new identity.
Think about it: Where else have you seen a bunch of guys with lots of rings kissing the boss and each other as much as the Patriots do? Like the Corleones, it's just business, from owner Robert Kraft on down.
Ball boys are expendable, and when the Patriots blame one - as Southern Cal did when the Trojans were caught doing the same thing in 2012 - take it with an industrial-sized dose of salt.
Would a ball boy deflate balls illegally after they were approved by the referees without asking Belichick or Brady for permission?
Well, Brady apparently likes his footballs on the soft side, particularly in rainy conditions like those from Sunday's AFC title game 45-7 victory over the Colts. So if the reports are correct, and if the NFL found 11 of the 12 Patriots' footballs were under-inflated, the only thing Belichick would be mad about - at least at first - is how the kid got that 12th ball wrong.
Belichick and Brady likely were careful enough never to ask anyone directly to take air out of balls. Maybe they learned about buffers from the Corleones, too. Maybe that wish was relayed through nothing more damning than winks and nods.
But plausible deniability won't fly in in this case. They knew the rules, and if opponents thought the footballs they were intercepting seemed flat, what are the chances the Patriots didn't?
Never fear. Now that the NFL's crack security team is on the case, the mystery will be solved any day now. Those guys, after all, never get anything wrong.
Remember how quickly they found the Ray Rice videotape? Or how they took care of bounty accusations in New Orleans without a hiccup?
OK, so the game was over Sunday, and they still haven't finished examining 12 footballs. But now Commissioner Roger Goodell is on the case, and he's known for getting rid of a crisis quickly and efficiently, just as he has handled every crisis this season.
Now imagine the ball boy's mother promising to go all the way up the food chain if necessary to get her son - whom we'll call Dave - out of trouble.
''But first, David, tell me where your baby pictures are. One of the guys from the news trucks parked on the lawn is asking.''
''That's the last thing, mom. Don't call me David anymore. My new name is Drew.''
''Drew Bledsoe. Coach Belichick told me nobody would remember that name.''
Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke(at)ap.org and follow him at Twitter.com/JimLitke.