Pro football catechism is rich with tales of Hail Marys, immaculate receptions, and Music City Miracles. But it may well take real divine intervention to get NFL owners and the league's players union to agree on a new collective bargaining agreement before Thursday's midnight deadline. The moment the clock strikes twelve is the moment the NFL--America's true national pasttime, a $9 billion branding behemoth that introduced the world the joys of foam cheese headwear and officially licensed sideline apparel--has its first work stoppage since 1987.

It'll be a lockout, not a strike. The players have been happy with the provisions in the expiring 2006 CBA. Why shouldn't they be? The agreement, hammered out in famously chaotic fashion over three days, stipulated that "59.5% of total football revenues...is now earmarked to player salaries." For the league's 32 owners, buyer's remorse set in almost immediately. In 2008 they voted unanimously to opt out of the 2006 CBA (originally set to expire in 2012) a year early. In a joint press release, the owners said that without more than 40.5 percent of the pie, they'd be hard-pressed to "spend significant and growing amounts on stadium construction, operations and improvements to respond to the interests and demands of our fans." The 2006 bargain simply failed to "recognize the costs of generating the revenues of which the players receive the largest share."

The standoff has been going on for three years now. Subplots about a rookie wage scale, an 18 game season, and increased safety precautions have made for captivating diversions, but the question of how to divide $9 billion in revenues is the biggest issue on the table. There's been no progress towards finding an acceptable number. The New York Times' Judy Battista believes the "chasms that divide the sides" have slowed the negotiation process and left those involved with "little sense of hope" that a compromise is readily achievable.

What's the best case scenario for the hours, weeks, and months ahead? Well, at 1:14 PM ESPN NFL analyst Adam Schefter tweeted that three sources told him an "extension of talks [is] now a definite possibility." That would mean more time for both sides with George Cohen, the well-regarded sports labor mediator chosen last month by the NFL and NFLPA to participate in the negotiations. This supports the prediction of Yahoo's Doug Farrar, who thinks that for all the posturing about tonight's midnight deadline, "the owners will ask for an extension to the league year, and the union won't disagree." In other words, the showdown could be a holding patten.

If an extension isn't procured, look for NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith to give the go-ahead to decertify the union sometime before midnight. From there there's no turning back. At Forbes, Kristi Dosh says the "ability to file a class action lawsuit" against the owners is the "only reason" decertification is being considered. Not only would players give up the right to collective bargaining they would "lose all of the benefits that are collectively bargained, such as their pension and medical insurance." More than that, writes Yahoo's Michael Silver, decertifying as "a tactical effort to block an owner-initiated lockout" would confirm to every football fan that the "doomsday scenario" of a "full-fledged NFL labor war ... a confusing, spite-filled standoff" is finally at hand.

The clock is ticking.