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Friday before the Vikings

Posted by Darren Urban on November 18, 2016 – 4:20 pm

The very first game Larry Fitzgerald played in the NFL was in Minnesota. That’s where the Cardinals opened the preseason in 2004. (He was targeted twice, making one catch for five yards.)

The first game Fitzgerald played that counted in Minnesota was in 2006, and that’s the game he set his regular-season best in yards, with 172 on 11 catches. (He had 176 yards against the Packers in the playoffs in 2015.)

Fitz insists this is just a business trip, and truth be told, he spends enough summer time in Minnesota where I could see how he would be able to separate. Shameless plug: Here’s the story I did after going to Minnesota in 2012 and talking to him at his house on the lake.

(By the way, one part of the interview burned into my brain from that Minny visit: Did you know Fitz wants to go into space?)

Besides, Fitzgerald has big enough reasons to want to get this one aside from his 0-4 record against the Vikings in Minnesota (The Fitz-era Cardinals are 2-1 against the Vikings in Arizona.) It’s not the fact the franchise hasn’t won there since a 1977 game, with an eight-game losing streak. It’s the fact the Cardinals need the win basically to stay in the playoff race. Mathematically they won’t be eliminated, but with a game coming in Atlanta and the Vikings struggling like they are, this one is crucial. No way to argue otherwise.

— It’s easy to wonder about the Cardinals’ offensive line, and John Wetzel and D.J. Humphries will be tested (yes, that is an understatement) against this front in this building. The Cards have to run the ball better than they did last week, you’d think.

But the Vikings are facing the same issues, if not moreso. With no Adrian Peterson and line injuries, the Vikings have one of the worst rushing offenses in the league. QB Sam Bradford has been solid when he has time – he’s only thrown two picks – but he can be sacked. For the noticeable hiccups the Cardinals have had on defense, and some blown coverages, the Cardinals have allowed a league-low 4.7 yards per play this season and their pass defense has nine interceptions and has allowed only six passing touchdowns.

— Along those lines, the Patrick Peterson-covering-Stefon Diggs matchup is incredibly intriguing. Diggs has made 26 catches total the last two games. That’s a huge number. By comparison, Pro Football Focus has Peterson allowing just 20 receptions all season.

— The Vikings have 38-year-old cornerback Terence Newman, who has played a significant role. Peterson shook his head at such longevity. Peterson, at age 26 in his sixth year, said he wants to make double-digits for a career before he thinks beyond that.

“My mindset is I want to go as long as my body will let me go,” Peterson said.

— Michael Floyd is also going home this weekend. He’s from St. Paul. He was asked if he looked forward to seeing some snow, since it’s supposed to snow tonight. “I’m glad they have a roof,” he said with a smile, referencing the new stadium.

— We’ll see on Tyrann Mathieu playing. It felt like a red flag when Bruce Arians said he was sore on Friday. It’s hard to tell if the safety will be playing Sunday. It could be a true game-day decision.

— You feel better about Deone Bucannon playing, despite only one day of limited work. Arians said he was “fine.” He’d be an option on tight end Kyle Rudolph. The good thing for the Cardinals is that this is the first time in a while they aren’t dealing with a mobile QB (Wilson, albeit gimpy; Newton; Kaepernick).

— Fitz, by the way, had ditched the knee brace for Friday’s practice after wearing one Thursday (and in the second half of the 49ers game.)

— Will be cool to see the new building. Everything I have heard (and seen on TV) makes U.S. Bank Stadium the jewel it was supposed to be. We’ll see if the Cardinals can find a way to break their losing streak now that they’re in a new place.

befreminny


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Keim: No such thing as disappointing win

Posted by Darren Urban on November 14, 2016 – 8:10 am

Steve Keim was blunt.

“I don’t think there are any disappointing wins,” the Cardinals GM said during his appearance on the “Doug and Wolf” show on Arizona Sports 98.7. “The one thing I’ve learned in this position is to respect and appreciate every win.”

The Cardinals are back to .500 after beating the 49ers. They have huge games coming up, on the road, with playoff contenders Minnesota and Atlanta. The good news is that Keim said the Cards came out of the game “relatively healthy” — Keim was not asked about the status of Larry Fitzgerald — and in keeping with the theme of respecting every victory, he found the positives from his team’s first game of the second half of the season.

— Keim said he was encouraged by the play of two players who struggled in the first half of the season: wide receiver Michael Floyd and kicker Chandler Catanzaro. Both continued to work every day despite their issues, Keim said. Especially for Floyd, “to see a smile on his face in the locker room was exciting for all of us,” Keim said.

— The offensive line did OK. Keim said new left tackle John Wetzel “played good” although Keim acknowledged the 49ers don’t have much of an edge rush (Wetzel will most certainly face a harder test against the Vikings.) The 49ers came in with a plan to jam up the run, so even going against the NFL’s worst run defense, “do you want to run into a wall?” Keim asked rhetorically. Instead, the Cardinals threw the ball. It led to turnovers, all on passing plays — two interceptions, a fumble by Palmer trying to buy time to throw a pass, a fumble by J.J. Nelson after a catch. The turnovers are what made the game close, Keim said.

— He praised Fitzgerald. “Fitz continues to be a warrior, making plays in critical situations,” Keim said. Again, no comment (or question) about Fitz’s health.

— The big picture says the Cardinals “have opportunities ahead of us.” And the Cards did finish in a close game, something they didn’t do against New England or Seattle (or Los Angeles, for that matter.”

— Keim said there was a chance safety Tyrann Mathieu will be able to return either against the Vikings or the following week against the Falcons.

— Keim still doesn’t give much vibe one way or the other about the possibility of a Chandler Jones contract extension. “Without getting into the dialogue of negotiations, when you make a trade you’re not sure how its going to go,” Keim said. “But he’s been a great teammate, fantastic in locker room, he works hard on and off on field. He’s been great fit for us, and hopefully we can iron out something long term.”


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Friday before the 49ers

Posted by Darren Urban on November 11, 2016 – 4:11 pm

OK, maybe it’s a little strong to say this is the John Wetzel game, but it’s definitely the beginning of the John Wetzel-half season. Wetzel is the guy who is replacing left tackle Jared Veldheer (torn triceps) for the rest of the season. He isn’t the only variable over which the Cardinals may or may not make the run they need to make, but he is definitely one of the biggest.

“The thing about Wetzel that you have to get over is every time you look at him, he looks freaking miserable,” offensive coordinator Harold Goodwin said. “Just miserable. Makes you upset to your core too, like ‘What’s the problem?’ As long as he’s got that miserable look on his face, that means he’s ready to go, ready to play.”

Wetzel has apparently looked absolutely down in the dumps this week, so optimism reigns.

His appearance, however, is the perfect proof of how this season is different than the fun run of 2015. Somebody as crucial as Veldheer didn’t get hurt this early last season (Tyrann Mathieu’s injury came as the Cards were wrapping up the division.) All the key guys were basically healthy. The offense had no question marks. Not like now. The Cards should get better offensively Sunday, because the 49ers defense is simply bad. Can they keep up something consistent through the rest of the schedule? Through the rest of a five-road-games-in-the-final-seven-weeks schedule?

— Underscoring the injuries. The Cardinals have had 58 different players appear in at least one game this season. The Cards had only 56 players appear in at least one game all of last season.

— David Johnson ran for a season-high 157 yards against the 49ers. The Niners have allowed a 100-yard rusher in seven straight games, a ignominious NFL record. Everything points to a lot of Johnson this week.

“If you’re getting 5-to-10 (yards a try), you keep it up, but it’s hard to get 5-to-10,” coach Bruce Arians said. “If you’re giving up five, you’re not very good. Sooner or later, you’re not going to get five and your quarterback’s not in any kind of a rhythm to get a first down on third down. So, you’ve got to mix it up.”

— Granted, it’s because questions are asked, but there has been a lot of positive things spoken about both Smokey Brown and about Michael Floyd this week. The Niners aren’t exactly great against the pass either. Would it shock me to use Johnson sometimes as the decoy to open up the passing game? No.

— The Cardinals are No. 1 in the NFL in total defense. It’d be nice to stay there against this opponent.

— What’s missing on offense, according to Goodwin? (Hint: It’s no surprise): “Getting those explosive plays, which we have a number we want to hit, is key to our offense,” Goodwin said. “As far as getting enthusiasm going, getting excitement going, getting chunk plays. We have to get back to that.”

Goodwin said he wouldn’t say how many the Cards want to hit per game, but it was more than five. Let’s say an explosive play is at least 20 yards — the Cardinals have 31 such plays this season in eight games. That’s less than four per game.

— No Tyrann Mathieu and no Tharold Simon mean a pretty big opportunity for either Brandon Williams or Justin Bethel. The season hasn’t gone the way either of them have wanted, not at cornerback. This is an important moment for at least one to make a mark.

— While I hope everyone got a chance to see the recent Pat Tillman “A Football Life” episode, I hope you also check out our most recent Zoom episode on Tillman. That’s the full interview that Tillman gave in the summer of 2001 that gives an insight into Tillman the person. It’s fascinating, especially in hindsight.

— In each of his three previous Cardinals seasons, Arians has had his team with a winning streak of four games, six games and eight nine games. The Cardinals have only a two-game winning streak this season so far.

— Don’t forget the annual food drive before Sunday’s game. Volunteers from St. Mary’s Food Bank Alliance and Cardinals Cheerleaders will be at collection points outside of all five stadium gates and the Great Lawn. Fans are encouraged to bring non-perishable food items and/or money for donation.

— The second half has arrived. The Cardinals need it to be so much better than the first.

fitzfly


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Cardinals have their guard(s) up

Posted by Darren Urban on October 20, 2016 – 9:43 am

It was not good when both Evan Mathis and Mike Iupati got hurt in the same game, something that could have crippled the Cardinals’ offensive line. But perhaps it turned out to be the best thing that could have happened.

Earl Watford slid in to Mathis’ spot — the spot that, in theory, Watford was drafted to play back in 2013, bookending with hopeful future left guard Jonathan Cooper. John Wetzel, a tackle by trade, filled in nicely for a game-and-a-half for the hobbled Iupati. All the Cardinals did in those two games was dominate in the running game.

Bruce Arians gave the entire offensive line (and running back David Johnson) game balls for the 171 rushing yards against the Jets.

Iupati should be back this week, sending Wetzel back to the bench. But if there is another injury at some point, the Cardinals have to be much more comfortable if Wetzel has to come in and play guard. Thinking long-term, however, the Cards may have some options beyond 2016. Iupati will still be around, but Mathis’ career is likely over, his one season in Arizona never really getting going because of multiple injuries. Watford is going to be an unrestricted free agent. Maybe he is brought back, the man to replace Mathis in 2017. If not, perhaps Wetzel is a candidate to fill in on the line, another big lineman who has really come out of nowhere to be a viable possibility.

wetzelblog


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Keim on David Johnson: “You wonder if he’s real”

Posted by Darren Urban on October 18, 2016 – 8:15 am

Everyone knows the story now, that the Cardinals sought Ameer Abdullah in the 2015 draft and only took David Johnson a round later because the Lions jumped up and drafted Abdullah ahead of the Cards. Yes, you have to be lucky and good sometimes. But after Johnson ran through the previously No. 2-ranked rush defense in the Jets Monday, General Manager Steve Keim said Tuesday during his appearance on the “Doug and Wolf” show on Arizona Sports 98.7 that Johnson has been so impressive both on and off the field, “you wonder if he’s real.”

It was a pure compliment. When you talk to Johnson, Keim said, he’s smart and articulate and humble. A “true professional,” Keim said. And on the field of course, he’s been excellent. “B.A. gives him a hard time” Keim acknowledged, and Bruce Arians is willing to quickly mention what Johnson needs to do to improve despite his gaudy stats. “But the things he does for this offense puts a defense in a bind.”

Keim said he’s always seen Johnson’s skillset to create mismatches in the passing game. But Johnson’s evolution into a “pure runner,” Keim said, is noteworthy.

“He has really improved, particularly his patience and vision,” Keim said.

More Keim thoughts after the Cardinals got back to .500 Monday night:

— Keim said he liked the resiliency of the Cards fighting back to .500, although there is still a long season left. The Seahawks game is big, but (not unexpectedly) Keim said it was important because it’s the next game.

— Lots of praise for the defense. He said the Jets game was the first time he had seen the unit play fast and loose with minimal mental errors. It’s a tough unit when it plays like that, Keim said. When it was suggested that the defense is morphing from a blitz-first group to one who might do a little of everything (the Cardinals certainly finally have a group that can get to the quarterback with just four, especially when the four are Jones, Golden, Campbell and Okafor), Keim said “more than anything, I just think they are starting to jell.

— Keim praised the play of Chandler Jones. “He impacted almost every play.” He also specifically named Markus Golden, fellow linebackers Deone Bucannon and Kevin Minter, and the play of two of the newer defensive backs, Tharold Simon and Marcus Cooper.

— Tyrann Mathieu continues to take steps forward. Keim said he doesn’t think the safety is 100 percent back yet, not from a movement standpoint. But “you definitely see signs of improvement.”

— It would be “huge” if the Cardinals can get Michael Floyd going in the second half of the season. But Keim said the Cardinals still want to do the same with the Browns — Smoke and Jaron — and even J.J. Nelson, who contributed quite a bit Monday night.

— Speaking of Jaron Brown, Keim did not have any injury updates.

— The offensive line and new guards Earl Watford and John Wetzel “did an excellent job” considering the opponent. The Jets had only given up one rushing touchdown coming into the game, Keim noted, and the Cardinals scored three. “Those guys stepped up for the circumstance they were put in,” Keim said.

 


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Niners aftermath, before the weekend

Posted by Darren Urban on October 6, 2016 – 11:54 pm

Is everything fixed? No. Even Bruce Arians noted, for instance, that the Cardinals have yet to break their zero-points-in-the-first-quarter streak, much to his chagrin. The Cards were 5-of-16 on third downs. But the bottom line is the Cardinals got that win they needed, within the division, on the road, with the backup quarterback. The 49ers are not a good team, but a 12-point road win still means something.

In this case, it means the Cardinals can feel better about this next week-plus as they try to climb back into the thick of things. There is time for starting QB Carson Palmer to get healthy (and there is significant optimism he will be OK by the time the Cardinals play Oct. 17 at home against the Jets). There is time to get others healthy. Or at least, healthier.

There is a big stretch coming. “Monday Night Football” versus the Jets. “Sunday Night Football” against the Seahawks. A road game in Carolina before the bye. This will determine if the Cardinals will be players in the second half of the season or not.

“We’re a team that can rip off a bunch of them,” defensive tackle Calais Campbell said.

A bunch would be nice. Tonight, about 30,000 feet up somewhere over California, one is a nice start.

— David Johnson, in case you weren’t sure, is a beast. The Cardinals needed to run against the league’s worst run defense, and they did. Johnson banged out 157 yards, and that’s what you need when you are starting the backup QB.

“I feel unstoppable, basically,” Johnson said.

He looked that way, too, basically.

— Johnson’s 695 yards from scrimmage through five games is a franchise-best. John David Crow had 665 through five games in 1960.

— I’m sure Drew Stanton would’ve liked to pass the ball better. Arians said Stanton was simply working too fast at times. But the goal – the main goal and by far the biggest goal – was engineering a win, and that’s what Stanton did. The second goal? Don’t turn the ball over. Check that box too. Goal three (OK, I’m speculating here) is ride Larry Fitzgerald. Always a good thing to do.

— Calais Campbell, according to the Elias Sports Bureau, is only the second player since sacks became official in 1982 to get two sacks, an interception and a safety in a game. Baltimore’s Adalius Thomas did it in 2006.

— Markus Golden was great. He’s turning out to be a heck of a second-round pick.

— Fitzgerald was magnificent on his two TDs. Run an excellent route to shake a cornerback for one. Squeeze the cornerback until the last second before the oh-so-subtle shoulder push to create room for the second. That’s why he’s a future Hall of Famer.

–Speaking of Fitz, the chest bump he delivered to guard Earl Watford after a score knocked Watford to the ground.

“Earl always thinks he’s like a phenomenal athlete,” Fitzgerald said. “So, I always tell him, whenever I score, I’ll meet you down there and we’re going to jump as high as we both can and he’s never even close and now he fell down too. So, that was real bad for him. I’m going to stay on him for that.”

Caught on TV, it’s something the big lineman will have a tough time living down –although he’s cool enough to embrace the moment.

— The special teams has not played well and deserve the criticism they have gotten as a unit. But Thursday night, they were pretty great. J.J. Nelson breaking off a 40-yard kick return. Ifeanyi Momah causing a turnover on a kick return. Ryan Quigley booming punts that hung in the air for five seconds. Good coverage on kicks and punts. A good day all around.

— Tyrann Mathieu had his rough moments as he moved back to his familiar slot cornerback role, but he’ll live with the ups and downs after the win. “I got out of there alive, so that’s all that matters,” Mathieu said with a chuckle.

“Sometimes I felt great, other times felt I was too hesitant,” Mathieu added. “Hopefully the more I play the position the more comfortable I will be doing it.”

— Great job filling in on the offensive line for Watford and John Wetzel, although we will have to see how Evan Mathis and Mike Iupati are. Iupati hurt his ankle – that’s a player you don’t want to lose for any extended time.

But at least the Cards have a little time to sort it out. After a win.

D.J. Swearinger, Tony Jefferson, Carlos Hyde


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Analyzing the initial 53-man roster

Posted by Darren Urban on September 3, 2016 – 4:55 pm

The Cardinals have gotten down to the 53-man roster. Surprises? Perhaps a couple, although the way the wind was blowing over the last few days of the preseason, maybe not so much. Once we got to the end of the fourth preseason game, it was looking good for undrafted ILB Lamar Louis, and the knee injury of Kareem Martin might have helped ILB Gabe Martin on to the final roster (as well as his pick-6), although Martin has caught their collective eye for a while. I think cornerback Cariel Brooks had a good chance to make the team until he played so poorly against the Broncos.

The one legit surprise — in my eyes — was the Cardinals keeping Olsen Pierre, meaning there are nine defensive linemen on the final 53. Nine! That’s on a team with a 3-4 base defense that will use Chandler Jones as a defensive end in some passing situations. Then again, this could be partly for the future, not wanting to lose Pierre (and thinking he can play) when both Frostee Rucker and Calais Campbell are going into the last year of their contracts.

— The roster breakdown, right now, looks like this:
QB – 2
RB – 4
WR – 5
TE – 3
OL – 9
DL – 9
LB – 9 (counting Bucannon; sorry Deone)
CB – 4
S —  5
ST – 3

— So many wondered if Matt Barkley would stick, but as I have said many, many, many times, Drew Stanton was the No. 2 and Barkley simply didn’t show enough to pass him up. The Cardinals will have a QB on the practice squad — it could be Barkley — but it was clear listening to Bruce Arians over the time in camp he was disappointed Barkley didn’t come along faster.

— The trade for Marcus Cooper underscored the need for a veteran cornerback. I wouldn’t be surprised if the Cards kept looking at that position.

— The same goes for backup tackle, although John Wetzel showed enough to stick for now.

— Only one draft pick wasn’t kept, cornerback Harlan Miller. I wouldn’t be surprised if Miller came back on the practice squad, but if you are Miller, knowing how much the Cards needed cornerbacks, you have to be disappointed you couldn’t make inroads in making the roster.

— When in doubt, teams go younger. That’s how you stay competitive.

— Teams will start making waiver claims tomorrow. There is still a (good) chance this 53 won’t be the 53 when the Cardinals return to practice Tuesday.

53blog


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Wednesday before the Broncos

Posted by Darren Urban on August 31, 2016 – 11:08 am

It’s an early edition of a “Before” post, but later today I will put up my guesstimate at the final 53-man roster — at least the one the Cardinals figure to have without knowing who is cut from other teams and who the Cards might try to claim on waivers or sign. Before then, there is a game to play.

It’s a different kind of game, since most starters won’t even be dressed. This game is about precious few rosters spots and the push to at least be asked on the practice squad (or trying to impress 31 other teams to pick someone up). Bruce Arians estimated the Cardinals have about 12 players fighting for about four spots. Impossible to know what we are talking about, but here are some of the positions/players that could be in that conversation:

Offensive line: Earl Watford as tackle/G Cole Toner/C Evan Boehm/T John Wetzel. Watford figures to make this team because he’s so versatile. And Toner has made a strong push to stay after seeming to be a long shot when camp opened. Boehm, as a fourth-round pick, will stick, but can he keep pushing to see if he gets playing time. Here’s the question: Can Watford show something at tackle so that, at least for now, he can back up there?

Secondary: CB Cariel Brooks/CB Harlan Miller/CB Ronald Zamort/S Matthias Farley. It was telling when Arians, asked about the cornerbacks beyond Justin Bethel and Brandon Williams at this point, only mentioned Brooks, who has put himself in a good place for the 53 especially given the Mike Jenkins injury. Can another cornerback step up? At safety, the Cards already have so many in play (Branch, Mathieu, Swearinger, Jefferson, Christian).

ILB: Chris Clemons/Lamar Louis/Donald Butler/Alani Fua/Gabe Martin. Technically, Clemons is listed as a safety but he’s basically been Deone Bucannon’s “moneybacker” backup. Do the Cards stick with the vet? Or is the youth of say, Martin make sense. Lamar Louis has been very good on special teams too. For these guys, special teams may be the place to watch.

There are others, but with everything done over the summer and camp and three preseason games, most decisions have already been made.

— The Broncos have already announced that their No. 1 pick, quarterback Paxton Lynch, will play the entire game Thursday. He’s their QB of the future. It’s something interesting even for Cardinals fans — and you wonder, had Lynch fallen to No. 29, if the Cards would have grabbed him.

— Arians isn’t sure cutting down the preseason will help the teams. Yes, injuries can happen, but he said doesn’t think two preseason games is enough to prep a team for the season.

“I think you have to build your roster, and the only way to build it is see these kids play,” Arians said. “The fourth preseason game is not for your starters. It’s for those guys who you build your roster on, build your practice squad on, the guys who need that week of work and that game. You’ll need them in November and December.”

— Arians isn’t worried about the leadership/knowledge lost in the secondary with the departures of Rashad Johnson and Jerraud Powers. Patrick Peterson, Tyrann Mathieu and Tony Jefferson have worked to fill that void. “All those guys making all the checks,” Arians said. “And with that, they’re not leaning on somebody. They used to lean on Rashad, so they wouldn’t study as hard.”

— Mathieu and John “Smokey” Brown have been cleared to play, but honestly, I’ll be surprised if either does play. As for Justin Bethel, with a sore foot, does he give it a try? He may just rest too. Arians said Bethel will have to play with a sore foot all season, but Bethel had already said he had to play with soreness last year as well.

— Final cuts won’t be announced until the weekend (they are due at 1 p.m. Arizona time Saturday). Until then, let’s finish up the preseason.

BetterBrocnosBlog

 


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If Veldheer goes down, a Humphries switch

Posted by Darren Urban on August 24, 2016 – 10:05 am

One of the important parts of the end-of-preseason roster choices will be how the Cardinals choose to divvy up their offensive line spots. As of now we have the five starters — from left tackle across, it’ll be Jared Veldheer, Mike Iupati, A.Q. Shipley, Evan Mathis and D.J. Humphries. Beyond that, you figure they keep fourth-round center Evan Boehm and Swiss Army knife lineman Earl Watford, who is still recovering from a knee injury. Does rookie guard Cole Toner stick? Guard Antoine McClain? Tackle John Wetzel? Do they add a guy?

Watford started two games at right tackle last year and is a strong possibility to play there if Humphries goes down. For now, coach Bruce Arians made it a little more clear how they would handle the backup tackle situation on the left. If Veldheer got hurt, Arians said, the move would likely be to switch Humphries — who spent his college days as a left tackle — back over to the left, and then fill in the right.

Arians also had a good line about what the Cardinals ask their offensive tackles to do.

“Block the best players on the other team,” Arians said. “That’s pretty much it. those defensive ends get paid a bunch of money. They get paid a million dollars a sack, you get paid half-a-million for 59 good blocks.”

VeldheerTacklesUSe


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