Where Did All The NFL Parity Go?

Where Did All The NFL Parity Go?
Where Did All The NFL Parity Go?
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

by Scott Kacsmar

No, we did not choose to write about parity just because the Chicago Cubs ended a 108-year drought by winning the World Series this week. However, didn't watching that series against the Cleveland Indians, another long-suffering franchise (last title: 1948), spark some thoughts about what the NFL equivalent would look like for a Super Bowl? That would be like watching the Arizona Cardinals take on the Tennessee Titans in Super Bowl LI, or maybe the Cleveland Browns and Minnesota Vikings if you preferred two teams that have not (permanently) moved and have not been to the big game in recent years. In fact, Cleveland (last title: 1964) has never reached the Super Bowl, and Minnesota's lone NFL "championship" feels hollow, because the 1969 Vikings still lost Super Bowl IV to Kansas City.

Five of the 10 longest championship droughts in American sports belong to NFL teams: Cardinals (69 years), Lions (59), Eagles (56), Titans/Oilers (55) and Chargers (53). The Browns (52), Bills (51), and Falcons (50) are right behind them, and while Super Bowl wins by the Jets (1968) and Chiefs (1969) helped merge the AFL with the NFL, those teams have not been back to the big game ever since.

With the NFL's 2016 season having reached Week 9, we are already expecting some familiar faces to be playing in February. New England has the second-easiest remaining schedule and looks poised to win out, which would mean a record ninth Super Bowl appearance (and seven in the last 16 seasons). If that doesn't make you groan, then consider the Patriots' best competition just may be the three teams who are also looking for a ninth Super Bowl appearance: Denver, Pittsburgh, and Dallas. Well, at least none of them signed Kevin Durant to help make this happen.

While the NFL is not quite on the NBA's level as a league with few legitimate contenders, there really is not a valid claim to parity right now. A few weeks after the mighty Patriots destroyed the lowly Browns (now halfway to an 0-16 season), we might be looking at disparity at its grandest scale since the 1970 merger. Anything can happen once a team reaches the tournament, so beyond just focusing on Super Bowls, we looked at the playoff droughts through which teams have been suffering.

Average Playoff Droughts

If Buffalo (4-4) fails to make the playoffs again this season, then that would mean 17 straight seasons that the Bills have missed the playoffs. Only the 1970-1986 Saints had a streak that long since the merger, and the Saints technically had to wait 20 years dating back to their 1967 inaugural season.

What I wanted to do was take each team's playoff drought since the merger to calculate the league's average playoff drought for each season. So starting in 1970, every team that missed the playoffs would have a one-year drought, while the playoff teams from that season (or any one since) would all get a zero.

Naturally, 1970 (0.7) and 1971 (1.3) had the shortest droughts since that was the starting point of the study, but the period of 2000-01 was the next lowest at 1.65 seasons. That was just before the addition of the Houston Texans and the realignment to eight divisions that we have enjoyed ever since the 2002 campaign. The season with the greatest average drought was 1977 at 3.6 seasons, but 2015 was right behind it at 3.5 seasons.

I separated the AFC from the NFC and made a graph of the average playoff drought by year since 1970.

During the 1970s, the NFC had some really long droughts (all reached at least eight seasons) from teams such as Atlanta, Detroit, New Orleans, the Giants, and Philadelphia. That explains some of the early differences between the two conferences, but you can see that the average drought for both dropped in the early 1980s. Much of this was due to the nine-game strike season in 1982, when 16 teams made the playoffs for the only time in NFL history. Some of these teams likely would not have made the playoffs had 1982 been a full 16-game season:

  • The Detroit Lions ended an 11-season playoff drought with a 4-5 record.
  • The Green Bay Packers ended a nine-season playoff drought with a 5-3-1 record, and did not make the playoffs again until the Brett Favre era in 1993.
  • The St. Louis Cardinals ended a six-season playoff drought with a 5-4 record, and did not make the playoffs again until they were in Arizona in 1998.

Yes, had it not been for a strike, the Cardinals may have gone 22 consecutive seasons without the playoffs, and the Packers may have gone 20.

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For the heart of the 1980s, the NFC had the best teams, with San Francisco, Washington, the Giants, and Chicago often competing against each other for Super Bowls. If you may recall, the NFC won every Super Bowl from the 1984 through 1996 seasons. In the AFC, there were a lot of great quarterbacks, but the flawed teams around them were too inconsistent, leading to more variation in the playoff teams. For as great as Dan Marino was right away in his career, his Dolphins actually missed the playoffs four years in a row from 1986 to 1989 on teams without a running game or defense earning their paychecks.

By the time the AFC improved around 1997, the two conferences were about equal in playoff droughts. But since 1998, the NFC's average playoff drought has never exceeded 2.4 seasons. Meanwhile, the AFC has exceeded that number for each of the last eight seasons.

In fact, no conference since the merger has had a worse average playoff drought than the 2015 AFC at 4.6 seasons. While the Rams (11 seasons) and Buccaneers (eight seasons) are looking to continue some really bad streaks in 2016, the NFC cannot compare to the seven AFC teams -- nearly half the conference -- who are working on no-playoff streaks of at least five seasons right now.

What Killed Parity in the AFC?

So while the Cubs were not our inspiration for this one, we can say that the Week 8 Thursday night game between Jacksonville and Tennessee was. Of course the ratings are down when games like this are on the prime-time schedule. Who wants to watch two teams that have been irrelevant for years?

The Patriots and Broncos have been the only AFC teams to earn first-round byes since 2012, and both are the current favorites to do so again this year. Since 1990, the only other teams to earn four straight byes were the 49ers and Cowboys from 1992-95. The NFC has certainly been much more open to variation, or parity as we are describing it. Last season, Carolina (15-1) and Arizona (13-3) met in the NFC Championship Game to go to the Super Bowl. This year, the two just met in a forgettable Week 8 affair with five wins between them. (OK, five-and-a-half wins.) If Carolina (2-5) and Arizona (3-4-1) both miss the playoffs, it will mark the seventh time that both conference championship teams missed the playoffs the following year since 1990. It would be the fifth time in the NFC, and the first since the Bears and Saints in 2007.

Unfortunately, we often run into low-significance games in the AFC. The Bills (16), Raiders (13), Browns (13), Jaguars (eight), Titans (seven), Dolphins (seven) and Jets (five) are the seven AFC teams with a no-playoff streak of at least five seasons. With Buffalo slipping, Oakland topping the Broncos or the Titans taking a weak division may be the only hope of the AFC ending these streaks this year.

How did the AFC get to be so lopsided? Sure, we could go through each team's most regrettable moves over the years, but that would be a lot of words for something that is so simple and obvious. These teams have continuously failed to find consistency at the head coach and quarterback positions. Sorry Jacksonville fans, but Gus Bradley and Blake "The Garbage Man" Bortles are not going to outsmart and outplay Bill Belichick and Tom Brady. Maybe Oakland is on the right path after getting Jack Del Rio and Derek Carr, but we'll see what happens when the schedule toughens up again like it did last year, when the Raiders lost six of their last nine games to finish 7-9.

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Obviously, the quarterback position has a huge impact on determining regular-season success. This is where the Patriots hold the biggest divisional advantage over the rest of the NFL, because Brady has been so far ahead of what the other three AFC East teams have managed to come up with since 2001. After all of those years and transactions, Chad Pennington is the best this division has had to combat Brady, who even missed the 2008 season with a torn ACL when Pennington was in Miami. With such little threat of the Bills, Jets, and Dolphins being able to win 10 to 12 games in any given season, the Patriots can basically book a home playoff game every offseason.

The quarterback disparity is not as huge in the other divisions, but this recent era really deserves more credit for being arguably the finest collection of quarterbacks at one time at any point in league history. I think Manning, Brady, Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers and Ben Roethlisberger all deserve to be mentioned among the 15 best to ever play quarterback, and it does not help the AFC that four of them started their careers there.

While the Patriots have controlled the East with Brady, the other AFC divisions have also been largely ruled by all-time great quarterbacks. The North has had Roethlisberger, though his annual injuries have helped Joe Flacco and Andy Dalton be good enough in some years on defensive-minded teams to win that division too. The South used to be ruled by Peyton Manning, and then the Colts lucked out in 2012 by getting Andrew Luck, the best quarterback prospect in the draft since… Peyton Manning. The Colts have really only lost the division recently when their quarterback was injured, including Manning in 2011 and Luck in 2015. The Chargers used to run the West when they had the torch passed from Brees to Philip Rivers, but once Rivers declined a little, Manning came to Denver in 2012 and continued his historic success.

Now with Manning retired and the talent depreciation in Indianapolis, it is up to players like Carr and Marcus Mariota to step up and bring change to the AFC landscape. Maybe we are seeing this in the AFC West, but we probably won't see change in the AFC East until Brady retires. Even then, that depends on how long Belichick keeps coaching. Jimmy Garoppolo still technically has the 15th-most passing DYAR (231) this season, and he did not even finish six quarters of action.

When we look at the NFC over the same time period, we do not see the same quarterback disparities, hence more playoff variation.

In the East, players such as Tony Romo, Eli Manning, and Donovan McNabb were on a fairly similar tier for years, with one-off performances from Michael Vick (2010 Eagles), Nick Foles (2013 Eagles), Robert Griffin III (2012 Redskins), and Kirk Cousins (2015 Redskins) also leading to playoff seasons. Since 2011, the NFC South has had Drew Brees, Matt Ryan, and Cam Newton, and each has led his team to multiple playoff appearances. In the North, Aaron Rodgers had the Packers on top as long as Brett Favre wasn't dominating in Minnesota (2009), but with Rodgers not playing like an all-time great in the last year, Minnesota has taken advantage. Jay Cutler and Matthew Stafford are basically the same solid-but-inconsistent guys, but with different dispositions. The West has been set up well for Russell Wilson and the Seahawks, but Carson Palmer had his own MVP-worthy season a year ago, and Colin Kaepernick used to be good for the 49ers.

Say what you will about the 49ers quarterback now, but the 2012-13 version of Kaepernick, paired with a coach like Jim Harbaugh, was the type of talent that these AFC divisions have rarely ever been challenged by since realignment. The fact that Jared Goff (hey, remember him?), Carson Wentz, and Dak Prescott were all drafted to NFC teams this year probably does not bode too well for the AFC's competitive future. Well, at least maybe Cleveland can have its pick of the top quarterback in the 2017 draft. Perhaps nothing says more about the AFC's disparity than the infamous jersey that listed 24 different starting quarterbacks for the Browns since 1999.

Projecting the 2016 Playoff Drought Average

We will not know what the final 2016 playoff drought average is until Week 17 ends, but using the latest playoff odds, we can make a good estimate at the midway point.

In the NFC, the expected playoff field currently includes Dallas (94.5 percent), Atlanta (84.3 percent), Seattle (84.0 percent), Minnesota (77.8 percent), Philadelphia (63.5 percent) and Green Bay (53.3 percent).

In the AFC, the expected playoff field currently includes New England (99.1 percent), Denver (83.1 percent), Pittsburgh (61.6 percent), Houston (45.9 percent), Oakland (70.8 percent) and Kansas City (67.6 percent).

Assuming those teams make the playoffs, these would be the projected 2016 playoff droughts.

Projected 2016 Playoff Droughts
AFC Team Drought
NFC Team Drought
BUF 17 LARM 12
CLE 14 TB 9
TEN 8 NO 3
NYJ 6 SF 3
SD 3 DET 2
KC 0 GB 0
NE 0 MIN 0
AVG 4.4 AVG 2.7

With an average drought of 3.53 seasons, 2016 would edge out 2015 (3.50), but still trail 1977 (3.57) for the longest average drought season since the merger. The AFC average would be the second-highest behind last year, but should Oakland falter and a team like the Bengals rallies back, then the AFC drought shoots up to a record 5.2 seasons.

To say that Oakland's ultra-rare Sunday Night Football appearance in Week 9 is a big deal might be the understatement of the year. Not only are the Raiders looking for a statement win in a first-place battle with Denver, but you could say this game is about showing whether the AFC has any new tricks up its sleeve, or if we are just waiting for the inevitable Patriots-Broncos or Patriots-Steelers showdown in January, followed by a Super Bowl rematch like Patriots-Seahawks, or Steelers-Seahawks, or Steelers-Cowboys.

With the Football Outsiders playoff odds now pointing to Patriots-Cowboys as the most likely matchup for Super Bowl LI, maybe 2016 was meant to be a year for picking the lesser of two evils. If you're a fan hoping to see some change in the postseason, this is especially not the year for you.


22 comments, Last at 07 Nov 2016, 10:21am

#1 by Raiderjoe // Nov 04, 2016 - 8:40pm

Have complained about AFC ffor years. Very boring. Horrible deciosons by many AFC teams with coach moves and QB hires

In this time frame even all the good mvoes made by Al Davis backfired.
Raiders finally on right track nwo with D. Carr and J
Del Rio. Shoudo be getting to 12-4 this season. Could play at Pates in plauoffs. raiders will have excellent chance to wjna

Points: 0

#3 by Alternator // Nov 05, 2016 - 2:38am

For the first time in all the years I've been lurking (and occasionally posting), Raiderjoe's extreme homer bias is almost entirely justified:

Derek Carr and Jack Del Rio seem to be a pretty good match, and the team is looking up.
They could get to 12-4 this year.
They could head out to play the Patriots in the playoffs - it wouldn't even be too much of a shock to see it as the AFC Championship Game.

Excellent chances, not so much, but hey! That's huge progress for a Raiders team that hasn't been able to get out of its own way.

Points: 0

#6 by Scott Kacsmar // Nov 05, 2016 - 6:12am

I have no reason to make this prediction two months ahead of time other than a cool "told you so" moment if it plays out, but my gut says Oakland ends up losing in Pittsburgh in the No. 3 vs. No. 6 wild-card matchup. Narrative is "Raiders finally return to playoffs, but young offense falters and the defense is shredded by an old nemesis."

Or it could be another Tuck Rule finish in New England in the divisional round, minus the Tuck Rule part since it doesn't exist anymore.

Points: 0

#12 by Scott Kacsmar // Nov 05, 2016 - 1:46pm

Didn't think that far ahead, but sure, a good possibility. Obviously, Steelers have a better shot at winning in Denver. Almost did it a year ago, and as long as Ben/Brown/Bell are healthy, there's always a chance. But I mostly just had Oakland in mind here. Still think Denver and Kansas City are the better teams, and that the AFC West will get three playoff teams.

Points: 0

#2 by dbostedo // Nov 04, 2016 - 8:47pm

Why not just throw out 1982 altogether as an outlier year? It seems to have artificially affected things.

What would the first graph look like without 1982?

Points: 0

#4 by Bright Blue Shorts // Nov 05, 2016 - 3:01am

That was my thinking.

That said, it's hard to put together a decently controlled study when things changed about every 5 years from 1970-2002.

Strikes in 1982 and 1987

Changes in the way the NFL allocated playoff spots ...
- 1978 - added a 2nd wildcard
- 1990 - added a 3rd wildcard
- 2002 - divisional realignment - four division winners and 2 wildcards

Plus you've got the expansion years in 1976, 1995, 1999, 2002 pushing up the number of teams vs playoff spots. Although in my head, using averages probably eliminates that as an issue.

2002 onwards has been the most consistent period of league structure but even the 2011 preseason lockout reflected into passing yards being high in the early season games.

The NFL sure does mess around with itself a lot!

Points: 0

#7 by Scott Kacsmar // Nov 05, 2016 - 6:39am

Yeah, I was busy with that Super Bowl study before the season started, but I was going to put something together on this topic. I love that the NFL has been more consistent in structure than ever before from 2002-2016. Really don't want to see that change with an 18-game schedule or 14 playoff teams.

Points: 0

#8 by Bright Blue Shorts // Nov 05, 2016 - 9:00am

I like the way the NFL is currently structured with divisions and the round robin schedules that mean teams meet each other on a 4-year cycle at worst.

But the downside is that it's fairly obvious as early as week 6 that some teams are done for the season. Heck the Rex Ryan quote about the Bills says that they can only hope for a wildcard now.

Like you, I wouldn't want to see the playoffs diluted by having 14 teams. But to the money hungry NFL, I think it's the solution they'll take because it gives two extra playoff games to charge for, as well as keeping more regular season hopes alive. Screw that the quality is down - that's not easily measured.

No easy solution without complete realignment back to six or even four divisions to allow more wildcards while limiting playoffs to 12 teams. Think SB50 could have provided a good stopping off point to say the AFC-NFC system is now being done away with as the merger is long gone. But if they do that - it won't help your studies!!

Points: 0

#11 by JoeyHarringtonsPiano // Nov 05, 2016 - 1:41pm

I would personally love to go back to 6 divisions (even though the teams per division would be unbalanced, that was the case anyway from '76 to '95, then '99 to '02).

Not only would a 3rd wildcard add more drama in the last few weeks of the season, you would greatly reduce the chances of a crappy team winning a weak division, with the requisite undeserved home playoff game.

Points: 0

#14 by justanothersteve // Nov 05, 2016 - 8:17pm

I'd be fine if they just ranked the six teams by record regardless of division. If the top 3 team records are all from the same division, then they are the #1-3 seeds. (I frankly doubt this might happen much, but I can see scenarios where three of the top four teams all come from the same division occasionally.) Winning the division with a playoff seed is enough of a reward.

Points: 0

#20 by RickD // Nov 07, 2016 - 9:04am

Probabilistically, the odds of that happening are fairly high.

Think of it this way: this will happen unless the four best teams are in four different divisions.

If you have a bag with 16 balls of four colors, such that each color is used for four balls, the odds of selecting four balls of different colors (without replacement) is
(12/15)*(8/14)*(4/13) = .14

That's an oversimplification, but the point remains that the best 2nd-place team is very likely to be better than the worst division winner.

It doesn't bother me that the best 2nd place team has to go on the road. The NFL schedule is very unbalanced. Records from teams of different divisions won't necessarily correlate to team strength. And I'm still OK with division winners getting a home game. I'd rather see that than see one team elevated over another solely because they got to play the AFC South when the other team had to play the AFC West.

Points: 0

#15 by Ed Schoenfeld // Nov 06, 2016 - 10:42am

I think you also need to take into account the free agency, salary cap, and CBA changes when thinking about parity and playoff droughts.

Notice the dip in average playoff drought around 1995, when the effects of the cap and true free agency were first really being felt.

Interestingly the changes in 2011 (the revised CBA) seem to coincide with an increased average 'drought.' That CBA allowed all teams to roll cap savings in one year forward to the next, and would seem to emphasize the kind of consistent cap management we have seen from teams like the Patriots and Packers.

Teams with longer playoff droughts all seem to lack that consistency (in large part because losing creates impatience).

Granted those are correlations, but correlations show us questions that might be answered with statistics.


Points: 0

#13 by ammek // Nov 05, 2016 - 5:24pm

The odd thing about parity in the AFC since, say, the turn of the decade is not so much that the Manning-Brady-Roethlisberger teams keep qualifying for the postseason, but that the other playoff teams have been drawn from such a small pool. Nobody would suggest that Cincinnati, Kansas City, Houston or Baltimore have had elite quarterbacks; they have mostly been (and Scott alludes to this) balanced teams that we think of as being well-coached. They have tended towards extremes of variance, being either quietly consistent or (like this year's Chiefs) capable of bouncing back immediately from a blowout. It seems remarkable that none of the teams with long absences has been able to pinch a playoff berth here or there with a season of average play and a bit of luck. So I thought it would be interesting to look at which of those teams have had near-misses since they last made the playoffs, and why they a) didn't quite make it that year, and b) weren't able to build on that.

Browns: Cleveland has had a 10-win season since it last made the postseason, but the restless cycling through coaches, schemes and quarterbacks, and the lack of depth caused by poor drafting and overpaying for free agents, are obvious reasons for the franchise's failure. The Browns had the #2 pass defense by DVOA in 2014; it dropped to #27 last year.

Jaguars: Jacksonville hasn't been above .500 or had a DVOA above -9.0% since 2008. It has finished in the bottom four in pass defense three years out of the last four, and five of the last seven, while having a bottom-five total offense in each of four straight years from 2011-2014. Despite drafting high each year, this team has not been able to address its weaknesses. Of the 50 players drafted between 2007 and 2013, only four accumulated more than 20 AV with the Jags. The most productive picks were Uche Nwaneri and Tyson Alualu.

Raiders: Al Davis.

Titans: Finished 11th in DVOA in Jeff Fisher's final season, with a positive points differential, but went 1-8 down the stretch to finish 6-10 against an average schedule, in large part owing to an inability to force takeaways. Next season, with slightly inferior DVOA, but with a throwback year from Matt Hasselbeck, the Titans finished 9-7 yet missed the wildcard on a head-to-head tiebreaker. Tennessee then lived in the past for too long, waiting for CJ to repeat 2K and for Jake Locker to become a franchise QB, while the pass defense fell off a cliff.

Bills: Famously were DVOA darlings on defense in 2004 but lost to Steelers backups to miss playoffs. Aging defense declined by 20 percentage points the following season, after thirtysomething DTs left in free agency or got hurt. Uncertainty over ownership, failure to find a QB, and year-to-year inconsistency then kept them in perpetual below-averageness. In 2014 placed 9th in DVOA (2nd on defense) but in a strong AFC missed out on wildcard to Ravens and Bengals, who had easier schedules, and because of a late-season loss to the 3-13 Raiders. Defense collapsed the following year.

Dolphins: Finished with a DVOA between plus 5% and minus 8% in six straight years following their 2008 postseason berth, against a schedule that ranked in the hardest quartile in five of those six years. Offense has ranked between 16th and 22nd in six of the last seven years. Pass defense – which you'd think would be a priority in a division with the Patriots – hasn't ranked in the top ten since 2004. On offense, Miami hasn't had a wide receiver finish in the top 15 in DYAR since Chris Chambers in 2003; over the past 12 years, its top receiver has averaged 142 DYAR, a number which would have ranked 29th last season.

Jets: Since their last playoff appearance, the Jets are 30th in yards per offensive play, while committing the 2nd most turnovers. Even in 2015, their most productive year on offense, they were 23rd in interceptions thrown.

These seven teams each drafted at least one first-round QB between 2004 and 2015. Between them they drafted 13 QBs in the first round (out of 33 total), 5 in the second round, and 3 in the third round during that period. The best of those, by AV, are Ryan Tannehill (42 AV; 16th out of the 63 QBs drafted in the first three rounds), Mark Sanchez (34; 19th) and Vince Young (33; 21st). But pass defense has been a weakness too. Between 2009 and 2015, these seven teams made just 10 combined appearances in the top 10 for pass defense by DVOA – and five of those were by the Jets, including playoff seasons in 2009 and 2010.

It's not because they are in a conference with Brady and Manning that these teams have failed to reach the postseason. They haven't really been close, and it's easy to argue that they wouldn't have fared any better in the NFC.

Points: 0

#18 by TheIdealGrassLaw // Nov 06, 2016 - 10:39pm

It's not just Brady and Manning, as you note, but those two QBs are a "problem" in a sense. There's only sixteen games. Having your bottom ten pass defense get shredded twice by Brady or Manning is huge in terms of expected chance to make playoffs.

Points: 0

#19 by Scott Kacsmar // Nov 07, 2016 - 1:21am

11+ win seasons in AFC, 2002-2015
East: NE (11), MIA (1), NYJ (1), BUF (0) [Non-dominant team total: 2]
North: PIT (6), BAL (4), CIN (3), CLE (0) [Non-dominant team total: 7]
South: IND (10), TEN (3), JAC (2), HOU (1) [Non-dominant team total: 6]
West: DEN (5), SD (4), KC (3), OAK (1) [Non-dominant team total: 8]

Points: 0

#21 by RickD // Nov 07, 2016 - 9:09am

Really, only two divisions have had a clearly "dominant" team: the East and the South. The North is usually a dogfight between at least two of PIT/CIN/BAL. The West didn't belong to Denver until Peyton moved there. Before that it was as likely to be KC or SD that was having the big season.

Points: 0

#22 by nat // Nov 07, 2016 - 10:21am

11+ seems an odd cutoff. Since 2002, 10 wins gives you a more than 80% chance of making the playoffs.

If you really wanted to ask the question of which divisions had tough competition for their dominant teams, then you'd ask how many times 10 wins wasn't enough to get in. That's not quite "parity" since you can still have consistently weak teams. But it's the "parity that matters".

Since 2002, just ten teams have had 10+ wins and not made the playoffs. Whether "parity" is a thing or not, these teams certainly experienced something like it to their detriment.

AFC East - 3: hardest path to the playoffs
NFC East - 2
AFC South - 0
5 others - 1

Points: 0

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