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NFL carefully plans a compelling Week 17

Dallas Cowboys v Washington Redskins Getty Images

As you take a breath following a riveting regular-season finale between the Packers and Vikings and wait for what necessarily will be the first game of the 2012 postseason, take a look at this item from Judy Battista of the New York Times regarding the manner in which the NFL planned the final course of a 17-week meal.

The seeds were planted several years ago, when the NFL decided to go with intra-division games for the last week of the season.  More recently, the NFL began to pay attention to the scheduling of the games played on the final Sunday of the season.

That Cowboys-Redskins game, with the winner capturing the NFC East and the loser heading home, nearly couldn’t have happened because the NFL and NBC considered placing the Week 16 game between the Saints and Cowboys on NBC.  Doing so would have maxed out the Cowboys’ national-TV allotment for the year, preventing the Cowboys from appearing in prime time in Week 17.

In all, 10 of the 16 games from the final week of the season had playoff implications, and the NFL deliberately selected games like the Packers and Vikings for a 4:25 p.m. ET kickoff and not for prime time because there’s no guarantee that the outcome would have changed playoff scenarios.  The Packers could have sewn up the No. 2 seed before 8:30 p.m. ET, and the Vikings could have nailed down a playoff berth before playing their final game of the year.

And so the NFL chose to go with Cowboys-Redskins, even though FOX didn’t want to give up that game.

“FOX wasn’t thrilled, but we have constant dialogue with them,” Howard Katz, NFL senior V.P. of broadcasting and media operations told Battista.  “They let us know they’d like to keep the Dallas game if at all possible. It could have been Green Bay going for the 1 seed, Minnesota having to win to get the 6 seed and Adrian Peterson going for the rushing record. But in the end, there were things that could have negated it all. We had to go with the sure thing.”

The only sure thing was Cowboys at Redskins, which became even more of a sure thing once the Bears won, preventing the Redskins from backing in to the postseason with a loss.

The message is that, while the Week 17 slate already featured plenty of compelling games with playoff implications, the NFL specifically configured the day to maximize the drama inherent to the effort both to qualify for the playoffs and to capture the highest possible seed.

For Sunday night, the drama will be high.  Cowboys vs. Redskins, in the biggest installment of the rivalry since they squared off in the 1982 NFC title game.

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Report: Panthers are done with Greg Hardy

Greg Hardy AP

We don’t know at the moment whether Panthers defensive end Greg Hardy will or won’t be suspended.

And we can’t know until at least the March 10 start of free agency to know where he’ll play, whenever he’s eligible.

But it seems we know where he won’t be playing next season.

According to Bill Voth of Black and Blue Review, the Panthers are out of the running for last year’s franchise player, deciding to let him walk into the market, and willing to simply accept whatever 2016 compensatory pick comes their way.

While a number of players went to bat for Hardy with management after his domestic violence case was thrown out to create a glimmer of hope, “that slim possibility quickly cooled and eventually ended last week.”

It’s unclear what, if anything, happened within the last seven days to erase the last shred of hope that he’d return. But you could see the writing on the wall at the Scouting Combine, when General Manager Dave Gettleman was discussing the importance of evaluating character and said “Who wants a ticking time bomb?

The Panthers were already wary of him, unwilling to invest in a long-term deal last year. Then their $13.1-million franchise tag gamble backfired, when he played one game and spent the rest of the year on the commissioner’s exempt list.

Hardy’s lately been retweeting fans begging the team to bring him back, but it seems like he’s going to have to find another fanbase to do his passive-aggressive online panhandling for him.

If this was just a football decision, he’d be one of the most sought-after players in the market. He’s still 26, and had 15.0 sacks the last time he played a full season.

Teams such as the Falcons, Buccaneers, Bengals, Raiders and Jaguars have the means and needs to pursue him, but his market will be fascinating to watch since no one’s sure when or whether Roger Goodell will rule on his status.

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Report: Rita Benson LeBlanc grabbed, shook Gayle Benson before December game

Benson AP

The Benson Family Feud features hard feelings and strong opinions and high stakes and plenty of lawyers, sparked by Saints owner Tom Benson’s decision to re-write his will in a way that altered the succession plan for his NFL and NBA franchises.  A new report indicates that the change from Benson’s daughter and her two children to Benson’s current wife was sparked by a December confrontation between Rita Benson LeBlanc (right in the photo) and Gayle Benson (left).

According to Jeff Duncan of the New Orleans Times Picayune, LeBlanc (Mr. Benson’s granddaughter, who previously was pegged to run the Saints after his passing) and Gayle Benson (Mr. Benson’s third wife) had a disagreement in the presence of others in a suite at the Superdome before the Week 16 game against the Falcons.  Duncan reports that LeBlanc was the aggressor, and that she eventually “grabbed Gayle Benson by both shoulders and shook the then-67-year-old repeatedly during a confrontation that lasted several minutes.”

“[Rita] was shaking [Gayle] to emphasize her point and to be heard,” a source who witnessed the incident told Duncan.  “It was pretty ugly.”

Duncan reports that, six days after the encounter, Mr. Benson “mailed a letter to [daughter] Renee Benson, Rita Benson LeBlanc and [grandson] Ryan LeBlanc telling them he never wanted to see them again and banning them from his business operations.”

In January, Mr. Benson finalized the change to his will that shifts ownership of the Saints and the NBA’s Pelicans to Gayle Benson after his passing.  That move prompted a lawsuit from Renee Benson, Rita Benson LeBlanc, and Ryan LeBlanc challenging his mental capacity to alter his plans for the future control of the teams.

While the incident between LeBlanc and Benson has no direct relevance to the question of whether Mr. Benson had the appropriate mental capacity to alter his will, it helps explain why he made the decision — and it likely will prompt plenty of fans in New Orleans who haven’t chosen a side in the Benson Family Feud to side with Gayle Benson.

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Saturday’s a good day to catch up on PFT Live

pftlive

Every Monday through Friday, three full hours of (mostly) NFL-related chatter emerges on PFT Live on NBC Sports Radio.  For those who aren’t in position to listen to the radio or the online stream from 12:00 p.m. to 3:00 p.m. ET during the workweek, you’re in luck.  And presumably not bad luck.

All PFT Live shows are available via the on-demand player that can be accessed right here, or through the “on demand” button at the NBC Sports Radio.  Which means you can listen to all of the shows while doing whatever it is you do on Saturday when you’re not at work.

PFT Live (the web show) has been around for more than four years.  The three-radio NBC Sports Radio tour has finished its eighth week.  Week Nine starts Monday, only eight days from the start of free agency.

 

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Von Miller: Wade Phillips will make Denver’s defense more aggressive

Von Miller AP

Broncos outside linebacker Von Miller thinks Wade Phillips is just the defensive coordinator to let him make the most of his talents.

Miller told the team’s website that he thinks the new defense Phillips is installing will let him do what he does best, and attack the quarterback.

“I think we’ll be a little more aggressive,” Miller said. “I’m looking forward to it. It’ll be pretty exciting.”

started all 16 games last season and had 14 sacks, but he said he believes he’ll be in better shape in 2015 because last year he spent his offseason rehabbing from a torn ACL.

“I’ve been working extremely hard this offseason,” Miller said. “Last year I couldn’t really do as much with the ACL surgery but now I’m 100 percent and I’m doing all I can every single day. I’m looking forward to my teammates and all the guys leaning on me to make some plays.”

The Broncos’ offense is still faced with the enormous question of whether Peyton Manning will come back, as well as questions about free agents Demaryius Thomas, Julius Thomas and Wes Welker. But on defense, there’s little question that the Broncos have good talent, and a good new defensive coordinator.

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49ers haven’t asked Stevie Johnson to take a pay cut, yet

Johnson AP

As the veteran receiver market grows via the release of multiple veteran receivers under contract, more and more receivers will be facing a take-a-pay-cut-or-take-a-hike ultimatum.

The group of veteran receivers facing that dilemma includes 49ers receiver Stevie Johnson.  Acquired via trade in 2014, Johnson never became fully engaged in the San Fran offense, resulting in only one start, 35 catches, 435 yards, and three touchdowns.

With a new coaching staff, a base salary of $5.5 million, a $275,000 workout bonus, and a $250,000 roster bonus due in March, the 49ers want Johnson to take a pay cut, per a league source.  According to another source, however, a request to accept less has not yet been made.

Diana Russini of NBC 4 in Washington reports that the 49ers are expected to release Johnson.  It’s possible he’ll simply be cut without any discussion about taking less.  Chances are, however, that a cut would be preceded by a negotiation.  Eventually, Johnson most likely will be asked to take less in order to stay.

Any analysis regarding a reduced offer includes gauging the market elsewhere.  It’s tampering for other teams to tell Johnson’s agents what they’d pay for him, but it’s prudent for the agents of any players facing this Let’s Make A Deal conundrum to try to peek behind Door No. 2 before rejecting Door No. 1.

The growing glut of veteran receivers coupled with the instant impact made by rookies likely means Johnson won’t be getting $6.05 million from the 49ers (or likely from anyone else) in 2015.  Look for something to be finalized before the roster bonus comes due on the fifth day of the new league year.

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McCown wants to help Manziel grow as a person and player

McCown Getty Images

On Friday, veteran quarterback Josh McCown opted for the Browns over the Bills.  On the surface, the move seemed a bit surprising.  At a deeper level, it makes more sense.

Per a source with knowledge of the situation, the Browns seemed more eager than the Bills to close a deal reportedly worth $15 million over three years, and McCown viewed the Browns to be the better fit.  Also, the Bills created the impression that they have other plans at the position.

For the Browns, the only clear plans at this point are that Brian Hoyer won’t be part of them.  Via Mary Kay Cabot of the Cleveland Plain Dealer, coach Mike Pettine and G.M. Ray Farmer called Hoyer on Friday to inform him of the arrival of McCown.  While they apparently didn’t say it, it means they won’t be trying to re-sign Hoyer, who is due to become a free agent on March 10.

McCown will be trying to help the guys who technically represent McCown’s competition, Johnny Manziel and Connor Shaw.

“If you can give of yourself to others to help somebody else in your journey, I think you’ll find so much more peace in life,” McCown told Alex Marvez and Mark Dominik of SiriusXM NFL Radio on Friday night.  “And so that’s my approach when I head into a quarterback room, and is just ‘What can I give back to the guys around me to help us be better?'”

McCown specifically wants to help the 2014 first-round pick who currently is going through a serious personal challenge after entering rehab.

“Johnny is a person, and every person that I come across has value to me, and they matter,” McCown said.  “And so I want to help him as much as I can with all parts of it.  To grow as a person and as a player and to help him go on and have a fruitful career.”

That attitude suggests McCown will be ready to do whatever the Browns ask him to do, with no agenda or rivalry or jealousy.  He truly wants to help the Browns win, whether that means McCown, Manziel, or Shaw taking the snaps.

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Chiefs, Houston move closer to franchise tag

Houston AP

Rarely (if ever) does a guy finish his rookie contract with a 20-plus-sack season.  Chiefs linebacker Justin Houston did just that, and now the question becomes whether the Chiefs will find a way to keep him with a long-term deal or apply the franchise tag.

An agreement seems unlikely at this point.  The Chiefs weren’t willing to meet Houston’s position at times when he had far less leverage than he currently enjoys.  Now, the 22 bales of hay are in the barn and Houston’s expectations won’t be any lower than they were during the season, when the Chiefs failed to meet them.

It makes application of the franchise tag, barring a sudden change of heart, a virtual certainty.  And that’s when things could start to get interesting.

During the season, Houston’s plan was to gladly accept the franchise tender, and the $13 million or more that goes along with it.  After one of the best seasons an NFL pass rusher ever has had, Houston is now content to let things percolate.

If the market goes haywire for available pass rushers like Greg Hardy, Jason Pierre-Paul (if not tagged), and Jerry Hughes, Houston’s leverage shoots even higher.  Then there’s defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh.  If he sets a new high bar for all defensive players, Houston with his average of 1.22 sacks per game over the last two seasons could argue he should at least come close.

The wildcard in Houston’s case will be the willingness of other teams to consider signing him to an offer sheet, knowing that, if the Chiefs don’t match, the price will be a pair of first-round draft picks.  With the Bills giving up a top-10 pick, another first-round pick, and a fourth-round pick to get receiver Sammy Watkins a year ago, why not at least ponder pursuing Houston with a low first-round pick in 2015 and, if a team that finished with a good enough record to be low in the draft order this year has Justin Houston, a low first-round pick in 2016?

The difference, of course, is the investment in the player.  Watkins cost the Bills $19.9 million for four years.  Houston may want $19.9 million per year.

The possibility of another team signing Houston to an offer sheet could prompt the Chiefs to apply the exclusive franchise tag, which would give him the average of the five highest-paid linebackers in 2015.  It also would make a Terrell Suggs-style linebacker-versus-defensive end tag fight more likely, since the gap between the two positions likely will be even higher based on 2015 cap numbers for the two positions.

However it plays out, the application of the tag to Houston likely will be something far closer to the beginning of the process than the end of it.

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More talk in Philly that McCoy may be asked to take a pay cut

LeSean McCoy, Chip Kelly AP

LeSean McCoy is one of the best running backs in the NFL. But he’s also one of the most expensive running backs in the NFL. And there’s talk in Philadelphia that the Eagles may conclude that McCoy isn’t worth the money he costs.

McCoy has already been asked about it this offseason and responded that he’s not interested in taking a pay cut, but Philly.com is raising the question of whether McCoy is in danger of being asked to take a pay cut — and getting cut if he declines.

Under his current contract, McCoy is scheduled to count $11.9 million against the Eagles’ cap this year, which makes him the second-most expensive running back in the NFL for 2015, behind only Adrian Peterson. Darren Sproles is also scheduled to cost $4.1 million against the Eagles’ cap, and the Eagles are expected to tender restricted free agent Chris Polk at $1.6 million for 2015. That would be a total cost of $17.6 million just for three running backs. That’s an awful lot of money to spend on a position that is being devalued around the NFL. And the easiest way to reduce that awful lot of money would be to reduce McCoy’s cap number.

McCoy has already said he’s willing to restructure his deal to lessen his cap hit for this year, but he was clear he just means a simple restructure that pays him the same amount of money, not a new deal that pays him less money. That means that if the Eagles think he’s overpaid, their only real option would be to release him.

It sounds crazy that a player as good as McCoy would be told to take less money or get cut, but then again a lot of people thought it sounded crazy at this time last year when discussions were first raised about the Eagles potentially cutting DeSean Jackson. Eventually, that happened. The two aren’t perfect comparisons because there were reportedly off-field issues that gave the Eagles pause about committing to Jackson, and that isn’t an issue with McCoy. But we saw with Jackson that Chip Kelly won’t hesitate to get rid of a productive player. We may see that with McCoy as well.

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“Safe bet” Demaryius Thomas will be tagged

Thomas AP

With two days to go until the window closes for using the franchise tag and no indication that any of the primary candidates for the tag are poised to strike a long-term deal, one of the biggest names due to hit the market most likely won’t.

It’s a “safe bet” the Broncos will be applying the franchise tag to receiver Demaryius Thomas, per a source with knowledge of the situation.  While the two sides are talking, a deal currently isn’t expected in the next two days.

While the magnitude of the parties’ positions isn’t known, Thomas stands to earn $13 million fully guaranteed in 2015, if the tag is applied and if he signs the franchise tender.  After the tag is applied, the Broncos and Thomas will have until July 15 to strike a long-term deal.

The eventual market for veteran receivers surely will be a major factor in negotiations.  If the coming glut of older pass-catchers sees the willingness of teams to spend plummet in light of the trend toward game-ready rookie wideouts, the Broncos may be less willing to pump up the numbers in order to get a deal done.

If/when Demaryius Thomas gets the tag, the stage will be set for tight end Julius Thomas to hit the market.  While many believe Julius is destined to no longer wear orange (yeah, I said it), quarterback Peyton Manning’s willingness to restructure possibly comes with a specific request to keep both Thomases around for 2015.

If that’s the directive, the smarter move could be to work out something with Demaryius Thomas before Monday, and then to use the franchise tag on Julius.  If agent Todd France anticipates the receiver market will soften to the point that the Broncos may actually offer less by late March or beyond, maybe the best move will be to take the best offer they’re willing to make now.  And maybe the Broncos’ best move will be to throw just enough extra on the pile to get Demaryius under contract — and then to keep Julius around with the tag.

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Bucs haven’t asked Vincent Jackson to take a pay cut

Jackson Getty Images

With so many veteran receivers in line for potential pay cuts, a myth has emerged that the Buccaneers have asked veteran receiver Vincent Jackson to take a pay cut.  Per a source with knowledge of the situation, they haven’t.

While that technically doesn’t preclude the Buccaneers from doing so in the not-so-distant future, consider this:  They really like Jackson, they consider him to be part of the team, they believe they need him in order to be successful this year, and they consider his $9.77-million salary to reflect current market value.

Things could get interesting if/when the veteran receiver market goes the way of the veteran running back market, with teams realizing young, cheap wideouts can now be expected to do more than ever before, making them reluctant to pay enormous amounts to players like Jeremy Maclin, Randall Cobb, and/or Michael Crabtree.

Some of the speculation regarding a looming request to take less surely comes from the trade chatter that emerged last season regarding Jackson.  But the Buccaneers, we’re told, never actually shopped him.  Instead, they listened to all offers for any players.  If a team like the Eagles made an offer for Jackson and the Bucs didn’t trade him, that says plenty about their desire to keep him around in 2015.

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Ridge had no problem with Eagles stadium in Philly flight path

green-stadiums-super-bowl-lincoln-financial-field-philadelphia-pennsylvania_31990_600x450 AP

One of the companies trying to build a stadium in L.A. has paid former Director of Homeland Security Tom Ridge to prepare a report that finds a competing project to present an unacceptable risk of terrorism due to its presence in the LAX flight path.

Former Director of Homeland Security and former Pennsylvania Governor Tom Ridge once arranged for the use of public money to help build a stadium in Philadelphia that, you guessed it, sits in the local airport’s flight path.

A source with knowledge of Ridge’s efforts — and apparent lack of concern — regarding the placement of the Eagles stadium has pointed out the inconsistency.  In fairness to Ridge, Lincoln Financial Field opened in 2003, which means that the wheels were in motion well before the events of September 11, 2001 significantly heightened concerns regarding the potential use of airplanes as weapons.

NFL executive V.P. Eric Grubman has said of the issue “the best approach is to look at these things with an independent eye.”  Ridge’s opinion was purchased by the non-independent and clearly biased AEG, which has been trying unsuccessfully to build a stadium in downtown L.A. for the past several years.  The NFL eventually will purchase (if it hasn’t already purchased) one or more opinions from truly independent experts.

And then the NFL will keep those opinions under wraps for as long as possible (if they’re not favorable), in order to not disrupt the momentum that flows from the current race to build a stadium in Los Angeles.

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Reggie Wayne unsure if he’ll play in 2015

Cincinnati Bengals v Indianapolis Colts Getty Images

Longtime Colts receiver Reggie Wayne doesn’t know yet if his NFL career has reached its conclusion.

Wayne said after the Colts lost the AFC Championship Game that he didn’t have a plan for 2015, and he still doesn’t. Ian Rapoport of NFL Network reports that Wayne had triceps surgery and is still mulling whether to play in 2015.

If Wayne does want to play, it’s unclear whether it will be in Indianapolis. Wayne becomes a free agent on March 10 and there has been no talk of any contract discussions with the Colts.

Wayne started 15 games last year, but he was limited to 64 catches for 779 yards and two touchdowns. Those numbers are his worst across the board for any full season of his 15-year career. So if the 36-year-old Wayne wants to play, it’s unclear whether any team will want him.

In other words, Wayne’s great career may have come to an end. Even if he doesn’t know that yet.

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AEG says Inglewood stadium presents terrorism threat

LAX Getty Images

In the Gumball Rally that has emerged as Inglewood and Carson race to build stadiums in the L.A. area, the company that has been trying to build a downtown venue for the past several years has thrown a fistful of nails into the path of the project proposed for the now-defunct Hollywood Park.

Via Sam Farmer and Nathan Fenno of the Los Angeles Times, a study commissioned by AEG concludes that the Inglewood site presents an unacceptable risk of terrorism.

The study, performed by former Secretary of Homeland Security Tom Ridge, warns that terrorists may try to hijack or shoot down a plane landing at LAX, with the goal of crashing it into the stadium.  Ridge calls the possibility a “a terrorist event ‘twofer.’”

The NFL is aware of the report, but it doesn’t seem to be ready to endorse it.

“We feel that the best approach is to look at these things with an independent eye,” NFL executive V.P. Eric Grubman told the Times.  “You should assume the NFL has its own experts hired and at work to assess any potential NFL site, in any city, regarding these matters.  And it is that advice that we will rely on.”

AEG has a clear bias; it wants to build the stadium in which one or two NFL teams will play.  But the concerns shouldn’t be dismissed.  The Inglewood site is in the LAX landing path.  If/when a Super Bowl is played there, any and every plane that passed by becomes the potential weapon for mayhem and destruction that would rival — and possibly surpass — the events of September 11, 2001.

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Browns sign Josh McCown

New Orleans Saints v Tampa Bay Buccaneers Getty Images

Josh McCown is a Cleveland Brown.

The veteran quarterback and the Browns have agreed on a contract today, the team and McCown’s agent Mike McCartney both confirmed on Twitter.

McCown was released this month after a rough first year in Tampa Bay. He previously had a very promising showing during the 2013 season while filling in for Jay Cutler in Chicago. Cleveland has to hope it’s getting the Chicago version of McCown, and not the Tampa Bay version of McCown.

Cleveland also has to hope that McCown can work well with Johnny Manziel, teaching Manziel what it takes to become an NFL quarterback but also starting for the Browns this season if Manziel isn’t ready.

The arrival of McCown in Cleveland will almost certainly mean that free agent Brian Hoyer, Cleveland’s starter for most of last season, is going to sign elsewhere.

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Sean Payton envisions virtual reality training for quarterbacks

VR Getty Images

During multiple coach and G.M. interviews at the Scouting Combine, I spitballed about the possibility of the NFL eventually developing a flight simulator-style approach to preparing quarterbacks for game reps.  For a change, the spitball stuck to the wall.

Appearing on a panel at the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, Saints coach Sean Payton suggested that a tool like that could be in the offing.

“The challenge we have all the time is that it’s the one position where there’s only one of them in the game the entire time,” Payton said, via Kevin Seifert of ESPN.com.  “The game ends, and how do you get those guys snaps, real-time snaps?  Much like we develop pilots — they do a lot of simulator work — I think the opportunity exists [in football].  Especially when you’re able to accurately show movement with chips, exactly how it unfolds with the defense.”

If anything, it seems overdue that these billion-dollar businesses have yet to develop a way to expose young quarterbacks (especially incoming rookies who have been running spread and/or one-read offenses in college) to the blender of choices that must be made before and during a play at the next level.

From making the right pre-snap read to adjusting the offensive line as needed to keeping an eye on whether the blocking scheme works to keeping an eye on the strong safety to making the progression through the primary, secondary, and tertiary (nerd!) receiving options to hoping the running back picked up any blitzing linebackers to sensing whether the blind side defensive end is about to flatten him, finding a way to simulate that process without exposing the quarterback to any physical risk makes a lot of sense.

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