NFC South: Mario Manningham

Darren Sproles and Patrick WillisUSA TODAY Sports, Icon SMIThe Saints and Darren Sproles, left, will try to control the ball against Patrick Willis and the 49ers.
The New Orleans Saints are heading into this week’s showdown against the San Francisco 49ers as the much hotter team. They just totaled 49 points, 625 yards and an NFL-record 40 first downs in a 49-17 rout of the Dallas Cowboys this past week, and the 49ers' offense fell flat in a 10-9 loss to the Carolina Panthers.

However, the Saints (7-2) aren't about to take this game lightly. Not only does it have huge playoff implications in the NFC race, but the 49ers (6-3) have proved to be an extremely difficult matchup for the Saints the past two years. They beat the Saints 36-32 in a playoff game at San Francisco after the 2011 season, then beat the Saints 31-21 at New Orleans in the regular season last year.

San Francisco's physical defense has been able to disrupt New Orleans' potent offense with sacks and turnovers, and the 49ers' rushing offense has been able to keep Drew Brees & Co. off the field.

ESPN Saints reporter Mike Triplett and 49ers reporter Bill Williamson break down the clash of styles in this week's Double Coverage:

Triplett: Bill, the 49ers' offense looks pretty one-dimensional this season. I know the Saints will be wary of their rushing attack, since New Orleans' defense has been inconsistent against the run. But what happened to San Francisco's passing attack (ranked 32nd in the NFL at 173.9 yards per game)? I expected a lot more from Colin Kaepernick.

Williamson: I can see your point, Mike, especially this week. Take a glance at Kaepernick's yardage numbers and you'd have to be disappointed. But, in a pure football sense, he is playing well overall. His Total QBR is a whopping 81.7 in the 49ers' six wins. He plays well within the system, and he has been efficient. He has suffered from being without his top 2012 target, Michael Crabtree, all season, and Mario Manningham has played just one game.

Still, there is no doubt Kaepernick could improve in his progressions, and he needs to start taking over some games. In Week 10, the entire offense faltered and Kaepernick was unable to impose his will. Great quarterbacks do that. Mike, do you anticipate the Saints being able to control Kaepernick?

Triplett: I'm curious to find that out. The Saints haven't been tested much by the read-option yet this season, but they're about to play Kaepernick, Russell Wilson and Cam Newton (twice) in the next six weeks. The Saints' run defense, in general, has been a little shaky in recent weeks. The Saints aren't getting pounded up the middle, but they have had a handful of breakdowns in recent weeks that led to big gains by opposing runners. They lost a game at the New York Jets two weeks ago because they let Chris Ivory get loose too many times -- even though they knew he was coming. So they'll need to be a lot more disciplined against the 49ers' dual threat of Kaepernick and Frank Gore.

On the flip side, Bill, few defenses have beat up on the Saints the way the 49ers have the past two years. Do they still pack the same punch this season? Can they slow down a Saints offense that was on fire the other night?

Williamson: What does "slow down the Saints' offense" mean? Holding them to 30 points? I'm sure the Saints will make their share of big plays. The always do. But this San Francisco defense will also make some plays of its own.

This defense is stellar. It was dominant against Carolina in a loss. The Panthers had one broken play for a touchdown and a 53-yard field goal. In the past six games, the 49ers have given up a total of 71 points. The 49ers are a ball-hawking, smart, tough defense. It will give the Saints all they can handle, especially if rookie safety Eric Reid -- of nearby LSU -- is cleared to play after suffering his second concussion of the season last week. Mike, do you think the 49ers' defense can slow this first-down-machine offense?

Triplett: Well, we've seen the 49ers do it in each of the past two years. Last season they sacked Drew Brees five times and intercepted him twice. In the 2011 playoff game, they had three sacks and forced five turnovers overall. So if they just do that, they’re in good shape, right?

Obviously the Saints will make ball control a huge priority. And they've proven they can do that this year. They're tied for second in the NFL with only 10 giveaways. And their patient game plan in a victory at Chicago in Week 5 comes to mind as a good blueprint. I'd expect them to feed Darren Sproles, Pierre Thomas and Jimmy Graham a lot in the passing game. The offensive line has been more inconsistent this season, allowing 20 sacks. But it played its best game the other night.

How worried should they be about pass-rusher Aldon Smith? I know he was limited in his return last week. How much impact should we expect from him Sunday?

Williamson: I can't say for certain, but I expect Smith to play a full game Sunday. He played about a dozen snaps -- mostly as an inside down pass-rusher -- against Carolina after missing five games while seeking treatment for substance abuse. The team wanted to ease him back in. Smith has said he is ready to be a full-time player again, and the 49ers will need all the reinforcements possible against Brees. So, I'd be surprised if Smith makes another cameo appearance.

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Stock Watch: NFC South

November, 27, 2012
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FALLING

Tampa Bay’s pass rush. Aside from a cornerback blitz by E.J. Biggers, the Bucs put almost no pressure on Matt Ryan on Sunday. Michael Bennett has put himself in position for a nice contract extension or a decent deal somewhere else. But Bennett could make his market value explode if he produces sacks in key times against good teams.

Tampa Bay’s secondary. The Bucs gave up 353 passing yards to Ryan. Then, things got even worse on Monday when starting cornerback Eric Wright, who sat out with an injury Sunday, received a four-game suspension. That leaves the Bucs dangerously thin at cornerback, with Biggers, Leonard Johnson and LeQuan Lewis as the top three cornerbacks. The pass rush better get straightened out in a hurry because this secondary is facing a big mismatch when it goes up against Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos offense Sunday.

Jabari Greer, cornerback, New Orleans. For the last several seasons, I thought Greer was one of the most underrated players in the division, maybe even the league. But he gave up a big pass play to San Francisco’s Mario Manningham and missed several tackles Sunday. Come to think of it, Greer hasn’t looked to be at the top of his game much of this season.

RISING

Cam Newton, quarterback, Panthers. He turned in his best performance, by far, of the season in Monday night's win against Philadelphia. Newton completed 18 of 28 passes for 368 yards and two touchdowns and rushed 14 times for 52 yards and two touchdowns. More importantly he was efficient and poised and he didn’t make any major mistakes. Makes you wonder why he didn’t play like this more often earlier in the season.

Julio Jones, receiver, Falcons. If you haven’t seen his 80-yard touchdown catch from Sunday, here is the replay. Jones did a tremendous job adjusting to Ryan’s throw without ever losing his concentration or track of the ball. He finished with a career-high 147 receiving yards. For some reason, I think he’ll end up topping that mark many times before all is said and done.

Sean Weatherspoon, linebacker, Falcons. I already thought Weatherspoon was very good, probably the best linebacker in the NFC South. But I didn’t recognize his true value until he came back Sunday after missing three games with an ankle injury and suddenly made Atlanta’s run defense solid.
Just about everywhere you look or listen there is speculation the Tampa Bay Buccaneers will be in hot pursuit of wide receiver Vincent Jackson.

It makes sense on many levels, starting with the facts that the Bucs need a true No. 1 receiver and Jackson probably is the best available in free agency. There’s likely to be competition from Chicago and Washington and perhaps some other teams. The San Diego Chargers are also holding out a bit of hope that they can re-sign Jackson.

[+] EnlargeChargers' Vincent Jackson
Kirby Lee/US PRESSWIREVincent Jackson, a proven No. 1 receiver, could help the Bucs win more games in the NFC South.
But the Chargers will only do that if his price tag is somewhere around $11 million a season. If it gets higher than that, he likely will walk and Tampa Bay’s a very logical place for one of the top members of this free-agent class.

The Bucs have about $43 million in salary-cap space and it’s become increasingly clear the Bucs want to do everything possible to put quarterback Josh Freeman in position to succeed. Jackson certainly would help in that regard.

At 6-foot-5 and 230 pounds, Jackson may not sound like the deep threat so many think the Bucs need. But Jackson is a bit of a freak of nature when it comes to his speed, plus he uses his strength to get separation.

Just look at his numbers when it comes to yards per catch. Last season, Jackson averaged 18.4 yards per catch. That’s the second-highest total of his career and the highest (19.7) came in his rookie season when he was used as a third receiver.

That shows Jackson isn’t losing a step, which is a concern for a receiver who just turned 29. It looks like Jackson has several good years left and the Bucs shouldn’t let their infamous history of bringing in receivers scare them off. Jackson’s not Alvin Harper or Bert Emanuel, guys that were No. 2 receivers elsewhere that the Bucs thought could emerge as No. 1 guys. Jackson also isn’t Keyshawn Johnson, Joey Galloway or Antonio Bryant, guys who produced in the short term, but, for various reasons, didn’t last in the long term.

Jackson is a proven No. 1 receiver. Although he had some off-field problems, those appear to be behind him and teammates and media members who have covered him say Jackson doesn’t have the “diva’’ personality so many receivers do. He’s described as very quiet and always has been liked by his coaches.

If the Bucs are going to get Jackson, it likely will cost them around $12-$13 million a year. That’s a lot, but the Bucs have indicated they’re ready to spend money after going lightly in free agency in recent years.

Jackson is the one guy out there that seems like a sure thing. Pittsburgh’s Mike Wallace is a restricted free agent and I don’t think the Bucs are looking to give up draft picks. New Orleans Marques Colston isn’t a speed guy and he’s been banged up at times in the past.

If the Bucs don’t get Jackson, then they need to look in a different direction.

Robert Meachem (Saints), Mario Manningham (Giants) and Laurent Robinson (Cowboys) are guys that can stretch the field, but none of them is a true No. 1 receiver, although they'd come at a much lower price tag than Jackson. But even adding a speed guy could make it easier for Tampa Bay’s current group of receivers – Mike Williams, Arrelious Benn, Dezmon Briscoe, Preston Parker and Sammie Stroughter — to get open.

NFC South: Free-agency primer

March, 8, 2012
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AFC Free-Agency Primer: East | West | North | South NFC: East | West | North | South

Free agency begins Tuesday at 4 p.m. ET

Atlanta Falcons

Key free agents: CB Brent Grimes (franchise tag), LB Curtis Lofton, DE John Abraham, WR Harry Douglas and C Todd McClure.

Where they stand: The Falcons put the franchise tag on Grimes but would like to sign him to a long-term contract. That would improve a salary-cap situation that’s already decent. Keeping Lofton and Douglas, who have been developed by the current coaching staff, is also likely to be a priority. Although Abraham led the team with 9.5 sacks last season, his age and salary expectations work against the possibility of his return. Unless Abraham’s price tag drops significantly, the Falcons seem likely to let him walk. McClure could opt to retire. But if he wants to play, it’s likely the Falcons would welcome him back.

What to expect: After a quick and embarrassing exit from the postseason, owner Arthur Blank made it very clear that simply making the playoffs isn’t good enough. Blank expects to contend for a Super Bowl title. The Falcons went all in last year when they traded up to draft receiver Julio Jones and paid big money to free-agent defensive end Ray Edwards. Look for them to take a similar approach this year. The Falcons are usually good for at least one major move an offseason, and this year we could see two or three. Don’t be surprised if the Falcons go hard after Houston linebacker Mario Williams because they need a pass-rusher to replace Abraham. Without a first-round pick, the Falcons also probably will use free agency to fill a big need at left tackle. There aren’t a lot of options, but tackle Marcus McNeill could be a target if he is released, as expected, by the Chargers. The Falcons could even make a play for New Orleans guard Carl Nicks. His presence would make life easier for any left tackle, and pulling him away from the Saints also would weaken a division rival.

Carolina Panthers

Key free agents: TE Jeremy Shockey, LB Dan Connor, G Geoff Hangartner, LB/DL Antwan Applewhite and QB Derek Anderson.

Where they stand: The Panthers seem to be uncertain whether Shockey plans to retire or keep playing. If he wants to play, they’d gladly take him back because he’s a nice complement to Greg Olsen. They also are likely to make a strong attempt to keep Hangartner, who did a nice job after Carolina had several guards injured last preseason. It’s similar with Applewhite, who was signed during the season and made nice contributions. But the Panthers seem prepared to let Connor test free agency because they can’t promise him playing time with Jon Beason returning from injury as the starting middle linebacker. Anderson could return, but the Panthers likely will at least explore the possibility of looking for an upgrade as Cam Newton’s backup.

What to expect: Don’t expect a lot. The Panthers had their big splurge coming out of the lockout last summer, and they’re paying the tab for that now. They will have to release players and restructure contracts just to get below the cap before free agency starts. Linebacker Thomas Davis, who is coming off his third torn ACL, is a prime candidate for release or restructure. Although the team clearly wants to improve its defense, don’t look for any major moves in free agency. The team simply doesn’t have the cap room to make any big deals. The team might sign a midlevel free agent or two, but major upgrades will have to come through the draft.

New Orleans Saints

Key free agents: QB Drew Brees (franchise tag), G Carl Nicks, WR Marques Colston, CB Tracy Porter and WR Robert Meachem.

Where they stand: The past three years have been the most peaceful and prosperous in franchise history. But the peaceful part already has ended this offseason. In addition to getting into trouble with the NFL for a bounty program, the Saints are dealing with contract issues that are beyond challenging. They used the franchise tag on Brees and that’s going to cost them around $15 million. Even if they do reach a long-term agreement with Brees, his cap figure for this year could climb above $15 million. Either way, the Saints are going to have major cap issues. They’ve already restructured the contract of defensive end Will Smith and may do the same with linebacker Jonathan Vilma or perhaps even release him and some veterans. The Saints are going to have so much cap space tied up in Brees that they’ll have a hard time keeping their other free agents. Nicks would seem to be the priority with Colston close behind. But keeping even one of them would be a victory for the Saints.

What to expect: General manager Mickey Loomis always has been aggressive and daring, and he might have to be even more creative than usual because of the cap situation. The Saints simply aren’t the type of team to sit still. They had flaws exposed in a playoff loss to San Francisco, and they’re asking new coordinator Steve Spagnuolo to fix their defense. The problem there is a lot of the current personnel doesn’t fit all that well in Spagnuolo’s scheme. Loomis needs to find a way to get at least one more pass-rusher up front and needs to add an athletic linebacker or two. He also may have to fill more needs if the Saints lose as many free agents as most expect. This team lacks a first-round pick in the draft, so Loomis will have to make some big moves when it comes to releasing players or restructuring contracts just to give the Saints a shot at being a little bit active in free agency.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Key free agents: K Connor Barth (franchise tag), CB Ronde Barber, RB Earnest Graham, LB Geno Hayes, S Sean Jones, DE Michael Bennett (restricted) and RB LeGarrette Blount (exclusive rights).

Where they stand: The Bucs begin coach Greg Schiano’s tenure in a unique situation. They’ve got a ton of cap room and need improvement in lots of areas. But they’ll deal with what they have between now and the start of free agency. A decision on Barber probably will come very soon. Schiano has indicated he’d like the veteran back, but Barber could choose to retire, which also would create a major need at cornerback. That position also could be an issue later in March when starting cornerback Aqib Talib is scheduled for trial on an assault charge. Talib could go to prison or face a suspension from the NFL, but his fate will be unknown at the start of free agency. Hayes didn’t have a great season last year, but he has upside, and the new staff might want to keep him. The Bucs are likely to let Graham walk because of his age. A return by Jones is possible at a reasonable salary, but the Bucs still need to look to upgrade at safety.

What to expect: The exact amount will depend on how many of their free agents are brought back, but the Bucs are likely to have somewhere around $50 million in cap space at the start of free agency and that will put them near the top of the league. After barely dipping into free agency last year, the Bucs were able to carry over extra cap room, and general manager Mark Dominik has publicly said the team plans to be more active in free agency. But fans need to keep that in perspective. The Bucs aren’t going to suddenly return to the days when Jon Gruden and Bruce Allen regularly shelled out money for big-name players in their 30s. The Bucs started a youth movement three years ago, and there are some parts in place. Now, it’s time for them to supplement those parts. They’ll be active in free agency, but they’ll be focusing on players still in their 20s. They’ll also be focusing on improving the supporting cast of quarterback Josh Freeman, who they believe can become great. Look for them to add a speed receiver, perhaps someone like Mario Manningham (Giants) or Eddie Royal (Broncos). The Bucs also want to improve at running back, where Blount is a one-dimensional power runner. They could look for a pass-catching specialist or opt to look for a complete back who could even replace Blount as the starter. On defense, the Bucs probably will try to upgrade at linebacker. If Barber and/or Talib aren’t back, the Bucs will have to make a move or two at cornerback and probably wouldn’t hesitate to pay big money to someone such as Cortland Finnegan (Titans).

Eddie Royal could fit Bucs' profile

February, 29, 2012
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We talked previously about how there’s speculation New York Giants wide receiver Mario Manningham could be a free-agent target for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

It’s logical on a lot of levels. Tampa Bay’s new offensive coordinator, Mike Sullivan, previously was an assistant for the Giants. The Bucs have a need to improve at wide receiver. As I noted, Manningham wouldn’t solve all of Tampa Bay’s problems. I don’t see him becoming a true No. 1 receiver and, although, he sometimes can make things happen in the deep game, I don’t see him as a consistent downfield threat, which is something the Bucs need. But I do think adding Manningham would help Tampa Bay’s receiving corps.

Now, let me throw another name that I view in a similar way at you. How about Denver’s Eddie Royal?

He’s scheduled to be an unrestricted free agent and the word is the Broncos don’t want him back. Although free agency hasn’t started and teams can’t talk to players until March 13, I’ve gotten some vibes that Royal might be a receiver the Bucs could be interested in.

Like Manningham, Royal wouldn’t solve all of Tampa Bay’s problems. But, also like Manningham, he could be a nice addition. I don’t see Royal as a No. 1 receiver, but I think he could fit as a No. 2 or 3 receiver. He had a big rookie year under former coach Mike Shanahan in 2008 when he caught 91 passes for 980 yards.

Royal’s numbers have slipped the past three seasons and he bottomed out last season, catching only 19 passes for 155 yards. But any receiver’s numbers are going to dip when Tim Tebow is your quarterback.

I think Royal could be much more productive in Tampa Bay with quarterback Josh Freeman. Royal is only 25 and I think the Bucs will be looking mostly at free agents in that age range. He also isn't likely to command a high price tag. Royal also has excellent speed. Maybe even more than Manningham, he has the ability to stretch the field. He also has ability and experience as a punt and kickoff returner.

Keep an eye on this one if Royal does in fact enter free agency.

NFC South evening update

February, 28, 2012
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We still are about to weeks away from the start of free agency. But the quiet period is starting to ease a bit. With the combine wrapping up, we're starting to get a bit more news as teams prepare for free agency. Let's take a look at Tuesday's headlines.

New Orleans guard Carl Nicks said he’s having difficulty with the anxiety that comes with the uncertainty about his future. It’s not fun or even fair to Nicks to have to go through this, but the reality is he’ll probably be feeling anxious for a while longer. The Saints still haven’t worked out a long-term deal with quarterback Drew Brees. The deadline for using the franchise tag is March 5. If the Saints don’t have a deal with Brees by then, he’ll get tagged. If they do have a deal, they’ll probably try to work out a quick contract with Nicks, but there might not be enough time, and he could end up with the franchise tag. However it works out, I’m sensing some turbulent times in New Orleans. The Saints very well could lose some other free agents like receivers Marques Colston and Robert Meachem, and cornerback Tracy Porter, and they might have to cut some prominent players to keep themselves under the salary cap.

At least the Saints have a little insurance at receiver if Colston and Meachem do leave. Adrian Arrington reportedly has signed his tender as an exclusive-rights free agent. That leaves him along with Lance Moore and Devery Henderson. That means the cupboard’s not bare if Colston and Meachem escape, but I think the Saints would go out and draft a receiver or sign a free agent, because they like to use a rotation of four or five receivers.

Instead of opening on a Thursday night as it has in recent years, the 2012 season will open on Wednesday, Sept. 5 because of a conflict with the Democratic National Convention. The New York Giants will host that game. Their opponent isn’t known yet. But looking at their list of home opponents, it’s not a stretch to jump to the conclusion they’ll host either the Saints or Packers in the opener.

With the new collective bargaining agreement, offseason programs are going to look a lot different than in the past. The Falcons won’t start their offseason workouts until April 23, coach Mike Smith said. That’s more than a month later than the team started in past years. But the ground rules are the same for all teams.

A day after saying he was 75 percent sure he’d be leaving the New York Giants as a free agent, receiver Mario Manningham adjusted those odds to 50-50. Manningham also downplayed a report that he could be headed to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. That’s all Manningham can realistically do at this point, because free agency hasn’t started. But, if he does become a free agent, there’s likely to be more media speculation about him joining the Bucs. That’s because Tampa Bay offensive coordinator Mike Sullivan was an assistant with the Giants and coached receivers at one point. That the Bucs could use better production at receiver also is going to fuel speculation about Manningham as a possibility for Tampa Bay.

Here's some audio of me discussing free agency and the Bucs (and a little bit on the Saints) with ESPN Florida Radio's Tom Krasniqi.
Tampa Bay sometimes gets a rap as a region that doesn’t care all that much about the Buccaneers. You can point to attendance to back that up. But that doesn’t tell the whole story.

It’s late February and one little bit of news has caused a pretty major buzz in these parts. With Mario Manningham saying he doesn’t expect to return to the New York Giants, there’s suddenly a lot of speculation that he’ll end up in Tampa Bay. I heard a couple guys talking about it at my gym earlier Monday and it’s making the rounds on sports radio.

In one regard, it makes sense. Tampa Bay offensive coordinator Mike Sullivan was the quarterbacks coach for the Giants the past two years. Before that he coached receivers. He knows Manningham and Sullivan’s offense is likely to be somewhat similar to what the Giants run.

Manningham to Tampa Bay certainly could happen, but I don’t think this is the kind of move that’s going to solve all the Bucs’ problems. Manningham is a good, but not great, receiver. He did play well in the postseason, but he never has caught more than 60 passes in a year.

He might be a good No. 2 or No. 3 receiver, but it’s not a good idea to project a guy like that into the No. 1 spot. The Bucs did that years ago with Alvin Harper and Bert Emanuel and neither worked out all that well.

Plus, Manningham’s style isn’t dramatically different from what the Bucs have in Mike Williams and Arrelious Benn. He could compete with them, push them and maybe share playing time with them. But what the Bucs really need at wide receiver is someone who can stretch the field.

Manningham could be a nice piece in Tampa Bay’s receiving corps. But the Bucs may have their eye on something bigger -- or at least faster -- in free agency. Adding someone like Mike Wallace, Vincent Jackson or DeSean Jackson -- if they hit free agency -- could give the Bucs a piece they need even more.

Around the NFC South

February, 27, 2012
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Time for a look at the top Monday morning headlines from around the NFC South.

Carolina coach Ron Rivera said he plans to be a little more involved with the defense in his second season. That’s a good thing. Rivera is a coach with a strong defensive background, and Carolina’s defense struggled in his first season. Now that he has a grasp of his duties as a head coach, that should give Rivera a little more time to get involved with the defense.

Wide receiver Mario Manningham, a potential free agent, said he’s 75 percent sure he’s done with the New York Giants. Keep an eye on this one Tampa Bay fans. The Bucs need help at receiver. Former Giants quarterback coach Mike Sullivan knows Manningham well, and is now the offensive coordinator in Tampa Bay.

Former Atlanta and Carolina linebacker Chris Draft is working to raise awareness about lung cancer after losing his wife to the disease. Draft’s wife never smoked, and a big part of his message is that non-smokers can get the disease.

Tampa Bay’s coaching staff and scouting staff are going through an important adjustment period. The scouting staff is trying to get a grasp on what the new coaches like in players at various positions. The Bucs might be a bit behind in this process because coach Greg Schiano was hired late and it took some time for him to fill out his staff.

The Falcons won’t begin their offseason program until April 23. That’s not uncommon. All teams will be starting around that same time. That’s about a month later than in the past, but the new collective bargaining agreement cut down the time teams are allowed to hold offseason programs.

Penn State’s Devon Still caused a bit of a stir at the combine by saying he’s “hands down’’ the top defensive tackle in the draft. Some say that honor belongs to LSU’s Michael Brockers. Either way, it’s likely the Panthers are keeping a close eye on both. They have the No. 9 pick in the draft, and could be using it on a defensive tackle.

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