NFL Nation: Final Word 2012 Week 15

Final Word: NFC South

December, 14, 2012
12/14/12
1:30
PM ET
NFC Final Word: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Five nuggets of knowledge about the Week 15 games:

Good news/bad news: Coming off a loss to the Carolina Panthers, the Atlanta Falcons can take solace in the fact they’ve won their previous 11 games immediately after a loss. The Falcons have not lost back-to-back games since 2009. They also are playing in the Georgia Dome, where they’ve won 10 straight games (the NFL’s longest active home winning streak). So everything appears to be in Atlanta’s favor. Until you consider this -- the Falcons have not won a home game against the New York Giants since 1978.

[+] EnlargeJulio Jones
Josh D. Weiss/US PresswireWith three more receiving yards Julio Jones will reach 1,000 yards for the season.
Terrific tandems: The meeting between the Falcons and Giants will feature the two most prolific pairs of wide receivers in the NFL since the start of the 2011 season. In that span, Atlanta’s Roddy White and Julio Jones have combined for 4,392 receiving yards, while New York’s Victor Cruz and Hakeem Nicks have combined for 4,384 yards. By the way, Jones needs only three receiving yards to reach 1,000 for the season. That would make Jones and White the first pair of Atlanta receivers to hit 1,000 yards since Tony Martin and Terance Mathis in 1998.

A record they don’t want: The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are allowing 311.6 passing yards per game. At that pace, they would give up 4,986 passing yards by the end of the season, which would be an NFL record. The current record was set last season when the Green Bay Packers gave up 4,796 yards.

A record he doesn’t want: New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees leads the league with 32 touchdown passes and is tied with Andrew Luck for the league lead with 18 interceptions. Since 1970, Lynn Dickey (1983) and Brian Sipe (1979) are the only quarterbacks to lead the league in both touchdowns and interceptions.

Intentional grounding: The Carolina Panthers have been making the most of quarterback Cam Newton's running ability. He leads the team with 640 rushing yards. The last quarterback to finish a season as his team’s leading rusher was Philadelphia’s Donovan McNabb in 2000.

Final Word: AFC North

December, 14, 2012
12/14/12
1:30
PM ET
NFC Final Word: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Five nuggets of knowledge about Week 15:

Big Ben looking to bounce back: Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger looked rusty at times in his first game back since injuring his rib and shoulder. His two turnovers led to touchdowns, as the Chargers pulled the upset. But Roethlisberger has had one of the most consistent seasons of his career. He has thrown a touchdown pass in 10 straight games, tied with 2007 for the longest single-season streak of his career, according to ESPN Stats & Information. He has 20 touchdowns and five interceptions this season, and that plus-15 differential trails only Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, Peyton Manning and Josh Freeman. The Cowboys have made only six interceptions this season, the fewest in the NFL.

[+] EnlargeBen Roethlisberger
AP Photo/Gene J. PuskarBen Roethlisberger struggled at times in his return game against the Chargers.
No home losing streaks for Harbaugh: The Ravens had their 15-game home winning streak ended by the Steelers this month. But Baltimore has never lost back-to-back home games in the five-year John Harbaugh era. The last time it happened was December 2007. This streak will be tested by Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning, who has won five straight in Baltimore. Since the Ravens' loss to Manning in Week 11 of 2009, the Ravens have won 22 straight home games against teams other than the Steelers.

Surpassing Jim Brown: It's impressive that running back Trent Richardson could pass Hall of Fame running back Jim Brown on a couple of Browns rookie records. It's remarkable that he has done this while not being healthy for most of the season. Richardson missed the entire preseason after having his left knee scoped. He then injured his rib, an injury that likely won't heal until the offseason. Still, his nine rushing touchdowns are tied with Brown for the most by a Browns rookie. Richardson needs 74 yards to pass Brown for the most rushing yards by a Browns rookie.

Dominating the NFC: The Steelers have lost three of their past four games following a four-game win streak. But all of those losses have come against the AFC. When it comes to playing the NFC, few teams in the AFC are better than the Steelers. Pittsburgh has won four straight against NFC opponents and 12 of their past 14 against that conference. The Steelers' interconference record since 2009 (12-3) is second-best in the NFL, according to ESPN Stats & Information. The Steelers' last game in Dallas was 2004, when they overcame a 10-point deficit in the fourth quarter and sealed the win with a Jerome Bettis touchdown in the final minute. It was Roethlisberger's fourth career start and he finished 21-of-25 for 193 yards and two touchdowns.

Grounded in December: Running back Ray Rice gained a season-high 121 yards last Sunday, and that shouldn't come as a surprise. During the Harbaugh era, Baltimore has rushed for 159.1 yards per game in December and January. Only the Panthers (175.3) have averaged more. That trend could continue against the Broncos. In his two games against Denver, Rice has 217 yards rushing yards and three touchdowns. Rice needs 83 yards from scrimmage to reach 1,500 for the fourth consecutive season.

Final Word: NFC North

December, 14, 2012
12/14/12
1:30
PM ET
NFC Final Word: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Five nuggets of knowledge about Week 15:

The stakes: The run-up to Sunday's game at Soldier Field took an unexpected, smack-talking turn. Little if any of it will have an impact on whether the Green Bay Packers or Chicago Bears win, so let's return our focus to football and run through the stakes of this game. The Packers can clinch their second-consecutive NFC North title with a victory, leaving the Bears needing help to reach the playoffs even if they win their final two games. The Packers are a three-point favorite on the road mostly because of their recent dominance over the Bears and the opposite directions the teams have moved over the past few months. The Packers have won seven of their past eight games. The Bears have lost four of their past five and are weakened by a recent spate of injuries. The Packers have won four consecutive games against the Bears and seven of their past eight in this series dating back to 2009. Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers is 21-6 against NFC North opponents all time, and the Packers are undefeated in their past 11 divisional games. Finally, here's a handy one-stop link for all of our Packers-Bears II coverage this week.

[+] EnlargeBrandon Marshall
Ezra Shaw/Getty ImagesBrandon Marshall is unlikely to get his wish for single coverage from the Packers secondary.
Marshall factor: Receiver Brandon Marshall made some sharp statements this week and also challenged the Packers to match up with him in single coverage. There is almost no chance the Packers will comply, mostly because the Bears have targeted Marshall by the most disproportionate percentage in the NFL this season. The Bears have targeted Marshall 153 times this season, second-most in the NFL. Their second-most targeted player in the passing game is running back Matt Forte (48). The differential of 105 targets between the two is almost twice the total of the second-highest differential in the NFL. The Bears' offense has been Cutler to Marshall of late. It might make sense to refocus around Forte and the running game Sunday, but that would reverse recent trends.

Packers' line: Out of nowhere, the Packers have built a productive running game in recent weeks and figure to split carries Sunday between Alex Green, DuJuan Harris and Ryan Grant. Some of that success can be attributed to Don Barclay's turn at right tackle; the Packers have averaged 6.4 yards per carry while running right in their past two games. But the Packers have had trouble protecting Rodgers ever since original starter Bryan Bulaga was lost for the season because of a hip injury. In his past four games, Rodgers has been sacked or put under duress on 34.3 percent of his drop backs. That's up from 20.1 percent over the Packers' first nine games. The Bears' sack totals have dropped in recent weeks as well, but they have an opportunity to make the game difficult for Rodgers if they can find some momentum in the pass rush.

Still pushing: The Minnesota Vikings have accomplished their immediate goal of playing meaningful games in December. Will it lead to the playoffs? That's a more difficult challenge. They currently have the No. 9 seed in the six-team NFC playoff picture and have the NFL's most difficult remaining games based on strength of schedule (.679). Sunday's game will come against a St. Louis Rams team that has won three consecutive games and hasn't allowed a 100-yard rusher since Week 8. The Vikings are 1-5 on the road this season. This is a winnable game for the Vikings, but recent history suggests the odds are against them making a final playoff push.

Streaks collide: Bummed about the Detroit Lions' five-game losing streak? Imagine yourself a fan of the Arizona Cardinals, who haven't won since starting the season 4-0. The Cardinals have lost nine consecutive games, most recently a 58-0 embarrassment to the Seattle Seahawks, and don't have an NFL-caliber quarterback on their active roster. Ryan Lindley will start this game mostly because he is a rookie and could conceivably improve over time. To this point, he has been awful, completing less than 50 percent of his 120 attempts with five interceptions and no touchdowns. Moreover, he has managed to complete only six passes to All-Pro receiver Larry Fitzgerald. Meanwhile, the biggest drama remaining in the Lions' season is whether Calvin Johnson can break Jerry Rice's record of 1,848 receiving yards in a season. He is 303 yards away from passing Rice and has three games to do it. All 14 ESPN experts have picked the Lions to win, which would impact the second-biggest Lions drama -- where they will pick in the 2013 draft.

(Statistics courtesy ESPN Stats & Information unless otherwise noted.)

Final Word: NFC East

December, 14, 2012
12/14/12
1:30
PM ET
NFC Final Word: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Five nuggets of knowledge about Week 15:

Home-field disadvantage? The Atlanta Falcons are 6-0 at home this season, have won 10 straight home games overall and are 32-7 in the Georgia Dome over the past five seasons. So the fact that they are playing at home this week should help them, right? Well, maybe not. Their opponent is the New York Giants, who not only beat the Falcons in a playoff game in New Jersey in January but have won seven straight games against the Falcons in Atlanta. The most recent of those games was a 31-10 victory on Oct. 15, 2007, but the Falcons have not won a home game against the Giants since Oct. 1, 1978, when they were able to hold Giants quarterback Joe Pisarcik to 86 yards on 7-of-21 passing and win on a 9-yard touchdown run by Haskel Stanback in the fourth quarter. Yeah, that's right. You know where to come for your Haskel Stanback notes.

[+] EnlargeJones
Brad Barr/US PresswireTackling explosive Atlanta WR Julio Jones after he touches the ball will certainly be a point of emphasis for the Giants on Sunday.
Keep 'em in front of you: In their playoff victory in January, the Giants held Falcons wide receivers to a total of just 47 yards after the catch -- a figure that accounted for 23.6 percent of Matt Ryan's passing yards in that game. So far this season, according to ESPN Stats & Information, only 39.0 percent of opponents' receiving yards have come after the catch, which is the second-lowest such figure in the league. However, the possibility that cornerback Prince Amukamara and safety Kenny Phillips could miss the game due to injuries could hurt the Giants' ability to prevent big plays after the Falcons catch the ball.

Uncommon streakers: The Washington Redskins have won four games in a row and are trying for their first five-game winning streak since the 2005 season. They visit the Cleveland Browns, who have won three games in a row and are trying for their first four-game winning streak since the final four weeks of the 2009 season.

Getting to 300: Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo is averaging 347.3 passing yards in home games this season, the best such mark in the NFL according to ESPN Stats & Info. He has passed for at least 300 yards in each of his past five home games. However, Sunday's opponent is the Pittsburgh Steelers, who have allowed fewer than 300 yards in eight straight games. That's the longest such streak since the 2008 Steelers went 14 straight games without allowing 300 yards. Playing without injured cornerback Ike Taylor could affect that, but Romo's top receiver, Dez Bryant, has a broken finger, which could impact Romo's 300-yard streak.

Season of giving? The Steelers lead the NFL with 16 turnovers in the past four weeks. This should be good news for the Cowboys, but the Cowboys have struggled this year to take the ball away from opponents. Only five teams -- Miami, Pittsburgh, Kansas City, Indianapolis and Philadelphia -- have fewer takeaways this season than the Cowboys' 14.

*Bonus playoff-picture note* The 11-2 Falcons are playing for something. They can clinch a first-round bye in the NFC playoffs with a win or tie and a loss by either the Packers or the 49ers. And if the Falcons win and the Packers and 49ers both lose, the Falcons would clinch home-field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs. No NFC East team can clinch a playoff spot this week.

Final Word: AFC West

December, 14, 2012
12/14/12
1:30
PM ET
NFC Final Word: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South


Five nuggets of knowledge about Week 15:

Manning and Broncos have had different Ravens’ results: Peyton Manning was great against the Ravens in his career while with the Colts. His new team, the Denver Broncos, have not been great against the Ravens in Baltimore. Including the playoffs, Manning is 8-2 with 19 touchdowns and eight interceptions against the Ravens and he has won eight straight games against them. Denver, on the other hand, is 0-5, including the postseason, at Baltimore. Something has to give. The Broncos will feel good about their chances of getting their first win against the Ravens on the road if the game is close in the second half. Manning has been masterful in the second half of games. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Manning has 19 touchdowns in the second half of games this season. In the fourth quarter, Manning has thrown nine touchdown passes with no interceptions.

[+] EnlargePeyton Manning
Jonathan Daniel/Getty ImagesPeyton Manning is 8-2 with 19 touchdowns and eight interceptions against the Ravens.
Chargers miss Tolbert: The Chargers' running game is struggling. They haven’t had a 100-yard rusher this season and the run game has been particularly flat in recent weeks. Ryan Mathews has been just so-so and there is a need for a back that can get tough yards. San Diego misses Mike Tolbert. They will see him Sunday. He left San Diego in free agency for Carolina, but hasn’t helped the Panthers much. He has 90 yards rushing on 30 carries and he has 24 catches. He was a big part of the Chargers’ offense in recent seasons. He was always there for tough yards, timely catches and he was a special teams star. Not signing Tolbert goes down as one of the team’s bigger recent miscues.

Oakland draft status will be closely watched: The Raiders, 3-10, are currently on pace for the No. 3 pick. But they can end up anywhere in the top 10. The Raiders’ three final games are at home against Kansas City on Sunday, at Carolina and then at San Diego. Kansas City is on pace for the No.1 pick. Carolina is on pace for the No. 5 pick and the Chargers are on pace for the No. 9 pick. Thus, each Oakland game will have a direct impact and in tiebreakers in determining the top 10 picks.

Chiefs are lousy in divisional games: The Chiefs hope their AFC West luck changes Sunday at Oakland. The 2-11 Chiefs are 0-4 against AFC West opponents and the games have not been close. The Chiefs have been outscored by 53 points in division games. Heading into Week 14, that was the worst division-game point differential in the NFL. However, the Cardinals left the Chiefs off the hook by taking a 58-0 drubbing at Seattle. The Cardinals are now 0-5 in NFC West games and have been outscored by 103 points in division games. The Chiefs certainly don’t want to overtake the Cardinals in that category this week.

Broncos, Ravens going in different directions: Denver, which is 10-3 and on pace for the No. 3 seed in the AFC playoffs, has won eight straight games, which is the current longest win streak in the NFL. Baltimore saw its 15-game home win streak snapped against Pittsburgh in Week 13. The Ravens haven’t lost two straight at home since 2007.

Final Word: AFC East

December, 14, 2012
12/14/12
1:30
PM ET
NFC Final Word: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Five nuggets of knowledge about Week 15:

Strength vs. strength: The New England Patriots' front seven on defense will have arguably their biggest test of the season against the physical San Francisco 49ers. San Francisco will look to slow the tempo by establishing the run. The 49ers are second in the NFL in rushing at 161.5 yards per game. Stopping the run also happens to be the Patriots' strength on defense. New England is eighth in the NFL against the run, and defenders such as defensive tackle Vince Wilfork and linebacker Jerod Mayo are playing at a high level. Something has to give in this matchup of strengths. Expect a lot of big collisions Sunday night at Gillette Stadium.

Patriots looking for assistance: New England needs to take care of business against a tough opponent this weekend. But the Patriots also will do some scoreboard watching of their own. There is a tight race for the top two seeds in the AFC. New England (10-3) trails the Houston Texans (11-2) by one game, and the Texans have a tough game against the AFC South-rival Indianapolis Colts. The Denver Broncos (10-3) and Baltimore Ravens (9-4) also play each other and both are trying to catch New England. The Patriots have the same record as Denver, but New England owns the head-to-head tiebreaker. By the time the Patriots take the field Sunday night, they will know the outcome of these two important games.

[+] EnlargeHenne
Sam Greenwood/Getty ImagesChad Henne has made his case to be a starter in the league following the season-ending injury to Blaine Gabbert.
Henne returns to Miami: The Miami Dolphins will see a familiar face Sunday when they host quarterback Chad Henne and the Jacksonville Jaguars. Henne was a second-round pick for Miami in 2008. But injuries and inconsistency made Henne a draft bust during his four years with the Dolphins. Henne got a second chance in Jacksonville this year due to an injury to former starter Blaine Gabbert. Henne is auditioning for a starting job next season. He has thrown for 1,217 yards, eight touchdowns and five interceptions in five games. Expect a motivated Henne in his return to Miami. He was open to staying with the Dolphins. But Miami's new coaching staff, led by rookie head coach Joe Philbin, wanted to go in a different direction and drafted Ryan Tannehill in the first round.

Huge stretch for Gailey: No coaching seat is hotter in the AFC East than Chan Gailey of the Buffalo Bills. Gailey is 15-30 in three seasons as Bills coach, and his long-term future with the team could come down to these final three weeks. The disappointing Bills (5-8), which had playoff aspirations, will play the Seattle Seahawks (8-5) in Toronto. Gailey's poor decision-making has cost the Bills games. That was never more evident than in last week's 15-12 loss to the St. Louis Rams. Gailey needs to finish strong to make his case to return in 2013. The Bills were 4-12 and 6-10 in his first two seasons.

Sanchez-Kerley connection: Not much has gone right for the New York Jets' offense this season. But New York may have found something between quarterback Mark Sanchez and second-year receiver Jeremy Kerley when throwing the deep ball. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Sanchez is an impressive 8-for-11 (72.7 percent) on passes of 20 yards or more to Kerley this season. Expect those two to try to connect for big plays again when the Jets travel to face the Tennessee Titans on "Monday Night Football." Kerley has taken over as New York's No. 1 receiver after the season-ending foot injury to Santonio Holmes. Kerley has 52 receptions for 728 yards and two touchdowns this season.

Final Word: NFC West

December, 14, 2012
12/14/12
1:30
PM ET
NFC Final Word: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Five nuggets of knowledge about Week 14:

Chasing Brady, record: San Francisco 49ers outside linebacker Aldon Smith needs three sacks to tie the NFL's single-season record since 1982, when sacks became an official NFL stat.

While Smith will be matching up primarily against the New England Patriots' offensive tackles Sunday night, quarterback Tom Brady looks like his toughest adversary. Brady has taken 20 sacks on 517 dropbacks this season. He has held the ball three or fewer seconds on 70 percent of pass attempts. That means Smith and the 49ers' pass-rushers need to work quickly.

The 49ers have collected 24 of their 32 sacks this season after three seconds. That included all five of their sacks against New Orleans' Drew Brees, another tough-to-sack quarterback. San Francisco beat Brees thanks largely to a pair of interception returns for touchdowns. While Brady has thrown only four picks all season, he threw three of them during defeats to NFC West teams (Seattle, Arizona).

49ers scoreboard watching: The 49ers have scored at least 27 points in two of their past three games. That looks good on paper, but the offense hasn't always been functioning at optimum efficiency. Interception returns accounted for 14 of 31 points against New Orleans. Then, after a 16-13 defeat at St. Louis, the 49ers scored only six first-half points against the Miami Dolphins before pulling away to win 27-13.

New England has held its past three opponents beneath 20 points, the Patriots' best three-game stretch since 2009. The 49ers are 1-3 when failing to score 20 points.

Waiting game: Coaches generally instruct their quarterbacks to deliver the football in timely fashion. The sooner the better, sometimes. There are still times when good things come to those who wait.

Seattle Seahawks receiver Sidney Rice ranks tied for the NFL lead with four touchdown receptions on throws delivered at least four seconds after the snap.

Week 15 opponent Buffalo has allowed eight such touchdown passes, most in the NFL. Quarterback Russell Wilson's willingness to hold onto the ball is one key variable. One question this week is whether a foot injury will sideline Rice or limit his effectiveness. Rice has avoided concussions the past two weeks despite taking huge hits. He's unsure when he suffered the foot injury, but it has kept him from practicing.

Third-down prowess: The St. Louis Rams' Week 15 opponent, Minnesota, has surrendered first downs on 44 percent of third-down pass attempts, the highest rate in the league.

Can the Rams take advantage? Quarterback Sam Bradford has been outstanding on third down during fourth quarters and overtime. His 86.9 Total QBR in those situations ranks fifth in the NFL. Unfortunately for the Rams, Bradford ranks 35th out of 36 qualifying quarterbacks in third-down QBR during the first three quarters of games. He's at 7.6, ahead of only Arizona's recently benched John Skelton.

Ben Roethlisberger (92.2), Brady (89.6) and Aaron Rodgers (84.8) lead the NFL in third-down QBR across all quarters. Bradford ranks 29th at 20.1. He has three touchdowns, three interceptions, 16 sacks and a 54.8 completion percentage on third down this season.

Third-down improvement could be key as the Rams try to follow through on coach Jeff Fisher's stated priority: keeping Vikings running back Adrian Peterson off the field.

Where Fitz stands: Arizona Cardinals quarterback Ryan Lindley has completed six of 30 attempts when targeting top receiver Larry Fitzgerald. That is one reason Fitzgerald ranks only fourth in receiving yardage among NFC West players this season.

Fitzgerald ranks second on his own team behind Andre Roberts even though Roberts has 42 fewer targets (126-84) and one fewer game played.

Michael Crabtree (761), Roberts (675) and Rice (658) have more receiving yardage than Fitzgerald (652) this season. The Rams' Chris Givens (584), Danny Amendola (576) and Brandon Gibson (537) have a chance to overtake Fitzgerald.

ESPN Stats & Information contributed to this item.

Final Word: AFC South

December, 14, 2012
12/14/12
1:30
PM ET
NFC Final Word: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Five nuggets of knowledge about Week 15:

On the verge: A year after finishing 2-14, the Colts can clinch a playoff spot with a win OR a loss by the Jets. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, since the schedule expanded to 16 games in 1978, only two teams have made the playoffs the year after going 2-14 or worse: the 2008 Dolphins and 1982 Patriots, both of whom lost their first playoff game. The Texans, meanwhile, will clinch the AFC South with a win and can wrap up a first-round bye with a win, Patriots loss and Broncos loss. Houston, which won the division for the first time last season, can become the only team other than the Colts to win consecutive AFC South titles since the division was created in 2002.

Bad beginnings: The Titans' slow starts have been a major problem. ESPN Stats & Information points out the Titans have allowed 38 more points in the first quarter than any other team. They are minus-66 in the first quarter. The Raiders are second worst (minus-57). The Titans have allowed 131 first-quarter points, 38 more than the Saints, who are second worst. The Jets are averaging only three first-quarter points. They are trying to take pressure off struggling quarterback Mark Sanchez. The Titans need to stuff Shonn Greene and Bilal Powell on the ground and put the game on Sanchez’s shoulders.

[+] EnlargeJ.J. Watt
AP Photo/Aaron M. Sprecher'J.J. Swatt' has deflected 35 passes this season, tops in the league.
Watt vs. Luck: The Texans have batted or tipped a league-high 35 passes this season, including 15 by J.J. Watt. Andrew Luck has a league-high 21 passes batted or tipped this season. That’s a major issue to keep an eye on, particularly if the Texans can turn tipped balls into interceptions. Luck has the most drop backs under duress in the fourth quarter this season, but he has handled the pressure. Luck has been his best under duress in the fourth quarter, throwing two touchdowns (as opposed to one in the first three quarters) and no interceptions.

Back home: Chad Henne will face the Dolphins, who drafted him in 2008 with the 57th overall pick. In 36 career games and 31 starts with Miami, Henne completed 60.7 percent of his passes. That is the highest completion percentage in franchise history (minimum 200 attempts). If he’s to play well, ideally he’ll be looking to Cecil Shorts, who is coming off a concussion. He has a receiving touchdown in four straight games. Only Fred Taylor and Maurice Jones-Drew have scored a touchdown in five or more consecutive games in team history.

Play-action at issue: Texans quarterback Matt Schaub has 10 touchdown passes on play-action throws this season, tied for the league lead with Drew Brees and Peyton Manning. The Colts have struggled to defend play-action this season, allowing the fifth-worst Total QBR (84.1) on those plays with 9.4 yards per attempt, six touchdowns and no interceptions. If Houston can get Arian Foster going and make play-action believable, it could be a long day for Indianapolis.

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