Introducing the New NFL Flexible Scheduling Watch

The Bengals have had an unexpectedly slow start to the season with Joe Burrow not being the Joe Burrow the team needs him to be. The much-hyped arrival of Aaron Rodgers with the New York Jets came to an abrupt halt after four plays and no pass attempts – and yet the Jets with Zach Wilson still might be the better New York team, no thanks to Daniel Jones outright regressing after what seemed like a coming out party last year, leaving the Giants to stink up the joint in their primetime appearances so far. The honeymoon for Mac Jones in New England appears to be fast coming to an end as the Belichick-era Patriots may be reaching the end of their relevance. The Bears and Raiders, already questionable choices to get as many featured windows as they got, have been looking downright woeful – at least until the Bears got an unexpected win in Landover on Thursday night. The idea that Sean Payton might be able to fix what went wrong with Russell Wilson last season doesn’t seem to have panned out.

Add it all up, and we could be in for one of the most active seasons for flexible scheduling in a long time… as the NFL’s flexible scheduling regime enters uncharted territory.

I’ve put quite a bit of thought into what I want the Flex Schedule Watch to be since the schedule release back in May, and as I gleaned as much as I could about how flex scheduling will work going forward, I fairly quickly settled on the bones of a new format that I think best reflects how I’ve been conducting the Flex Schedule Watch in recent years, how the NFL has been conducting flex scheduling, and the changes to the flex scheduling regime. Gone are the regimented bullet points of the past, which had become as much restricting as guiding, and in is a new tabular format and more freeform, in-depth analysis. I’m not sure exactly how it’ll work yet – I might not have much to say about most weeks until a couple weeks until the decision has to come down – and I’ll probably work things out as the season goes along, but I have the basic idea at least. In this post I’ll walk through how it works with reference to several key weeks on the schedule. 

The first thing to note is that the changes to flex scheduling are extensive enough that for this season, I will not be updating the Flex Scheduling Primer. There’s too much unknown about exactly how it works or how the league will be using it as the season goes along, and a lot of the historical examples I use on that page might be of limited usefulness – to say nothing about how the mess at the end of last year scrambled a lot of my assumptions in ways I still don’t know how to deal with. (Also, the NFL’s own flex schedule page has finally been substantially updated, though as the significant amount of unknowns suggests, still leaves out a lot of behind-the-scenes elements.) You can still refer to the Primer for how flex scheduling used to work before this year. For now, let’s walk through what we know about how flex scheduling has changed – much of it taken from this post but also from information gleaned since then. We’ll save anything relating to Thursday night flex scheduling for just a bit, and for the moment, stick to Sunday and Monday nights.

  • Flex scheduling now applies to Monday Night Football, starting in Week 12, in addition to the existing Sunday night flex scheduling.
  • Sunday night games in Week 14-17 may be moved on six days notice. (The NFL has already done this twice in the penultimate week of the season, but now it’s an official part of the flex scheduling procedures.)
  • Each team is now allotted seven primetime appearances. Primetime appearances seem to count all games in primetime windows, and no games outside of primetime, regardless of what package they belong to; thus, Amazon’s Black Friday game and NBC’s late-afternoon game on the Saturday before Christmas do not count, but the Peacock primetime game that Saturday does. I don’t know if the limit of four games on NBC still applies or if any limits apply to games on ESPN, but I don’t think the NBC limit ever came into play separately from the more general primetime limit, so it’s not going to affect my considerations.
  • According to Fox Sports’ Michael Mulvihill, the Sunday afternoon networks are now guaranteed at least one half of each division rivalry in their respective conference. I’m not sure that’s entirely accurate, as several Week 18 games have their first halves on the other conference’s network, including the Cowboys at Washington, whose first half is on CBS on Thanksgiving. However, they’re all on the other conference’s network; none of them are part of primetime packages, and that might be significant.
  • Mulvihill also confirmed for me that “without revealing too much [networks are allowed to protect games in the main flex period] significantly closer to each game date.”

When might those later protections come down? Well, the situation surrounding Thursday night flexing may provide a clue. According to Sports Illustrated‘s Albert Breer, the original Thursday night flex proposal in March would have given teams 28 days’ notice that their game could be moved to Thursday night, with the actual decision coming with 15 days’ notice. The implication is that CBS and Fox would have submitted protections at that 28-day mark. The proposal that actually passed in May made the actual flexing decision come with 28 days’ notice. Generalizing this to all primetime flex scheduling would imply that protections would need to come down five weeks in advance – as protecting games from being moved to Thursday night 28 days before that Thursday night would mean that, at most, the only game in the week four weeks before the week in question that the networks would have to work with would be that week’s Thursday night game. (In other words, for the Week 14 Thursday night game, the deadline for protections would be the day of the Week 10 Thursday night game.) My first instinct was that it implied a four-week window for protections, which would be a neater number to work with, but even if the window was relative to Sunday, the window for announcing a flex one week in advance has been six days in advance, and with rare exceptions those decisions have come down on the preceding Sunday. That being said, apparently in March the league needed to check whether its agreements with CBS and Fox would allow them to make Thursday night flex decisions 28 days in advance, which could suggest that CBS and Fox’s protection deadline was normally less than five weeks in advance.

In theory, the window for protections to be submitted could be as early as six weeks before game date (which would mean protections for Week 11 would still be due after Week 5) or as late as right before the decision needs to come down, but barring any further reporting on the matter I’m going to be working under the assumption that protections in the main flex period will come down four or five weeks in advance, and that protections in the early flex period work as before with CBS and Fox being able to protect games at any time until the decision needs to be made. This means that, going forward, I’m likely not to start the Flex Schedule Watch (barring potential early flexes for Weeks 5-8) until Week 6, which is not only five weeks before Week 11, but marks the one-third mark of the season, as well as a point where there starts to be enough separation between teams that you can start to make informed conclusions about which teams are actually good or not based on their record and not subjective analyses of who they’ve beaten or not. In the meantime, here are the other rules governing Thursday night flexes:

  • Thursday night flexible scheduling begins Week 13 – somewhat surprising, as at least this year, that’s the week after Thanksgiving, where the league generally schedules a game between two teams that played on Thanksgiving, which could be broken up with flex scheduling.
  • The league may apply flexible scheduling to Thursday nights no more than twice a year, and no team may be flexed into Thursday night more than once.
  • No team may play on Thursdays following Sundays more than twice a season, and reportedly, no more than one Thursday road game following a Sunday game.

These last two rules on how often teams can play Thursday games have the effect of preventing more than half the league from having road games flexed into Thursday night, making it easier to list which games can be flexed into Thursday night than can’t. This was actually one of the last things that helped solidify what the new Flex Schedule Watch would look like, and now we can finally take a look at what it actually will look like. Let’s start with Week 11, where only the Sunday night game is flexible and currently features a pair of pretty dire teams in the Vikings and Broncos.

The top section shows the four main featured windows and what games were scheduled there at the start of the year. The Thursday night and Monday night windows are grayed out, indicating that they can’t be flexed this week. Note that while I’m including the featured late afternoon game in the listed windows, I’m not going to give it much coverage in my analysis and won’t be predicting changes to it very often unless the game is truly dire, especially given the ability to move a game into that window without necessarily featuring it, and especially given the complexities of messing with the afternoon schedule in general, particularly the league’s desire to make sure the singleheader and early doubleheader windows have viable anchor games as well. Each game in a Sunday afternoon window has the network they’re currently slated for, CBS or Fox, indicated below. Going forward I’m only going to predict one possible protection for each network and use the associated text to list other possible protections; however, I reserve the right to list multiple possible protections depending on which week they were due. Predicted protections are indicated by the “Protect?” text. (Protections probably aren’t due until next week at the earliest, but it’s highly unlikely that they’ll be any different from what’s shown – with a caveat I’ll get to in a sec.)

On the bottom left of each game’s space is the “Buzzmeter”, which measures the attractiveness of each game based solely on the record of the worse team in the game, as shown by both the length of the bar and color of the background. (My original idea was for the bar itself to change from red to green as it got longer, but Excel’s conditional formatting doesn’t seem to allow for that.) I’m also going to generally limit the number of alternatives shown to four games, although that may grow the week before the decision has to come down in order to list every potential option; here, Titans-Jaguars and Chargers-Packers are additional games pitting teams at 2-3 against teams at .500 or better.

Right now, this week poses an interesting conundrum for the NFL and its partners. Bucs-Niners is clearly the best game on the Sunday slate, but it’s also Fox’s only game involving two teams both above .500; Chargers-Packers, at 2-2 v. 2-3, is its next best game. But also, as it stands Bucs-Niners would be trapped in late singleheader purgatory, so if these records hold, the league may want to put pressure on Fox to let the game go to NBC. Perhaps CBS ends up sending one of its games to Fox to redress the balance. Obviously a lot can change between now and Week 9, but this situation could be one to watch as the season goes along.

Now let’s fast-forward to Week 15, where Chargers-Raiders could be at risk of being flexed out of TNF, and where we find the NFL Network Saturday tripleheader to add some more complexity to the mix. This week, we’ve added another section between the top and bottom sections listing the games set aside for a possible move to Saturday. The SNF section also indicates that it can be flexed as late as six days in advance.

Many games here, including both the Sunday late-afternoon feature and Sunday night games, have “TNF [check]” indicators in the bottom right, indicating that these games can be flexed to Thursday Night Football. (However, games already in featured windows are unlikely to move.) The Steelers-Colts game has its TNF indicator with an asterisk, indicating that the Steelers play on Thursday night the previous week and so wouldn’t have short rest, but that in turn means they would have a massive rest advantage over the Colts; it, too, is highly unlikely to move any earlier than Saturday. Looking at this slate, it looks like Eagles-Seahawks is likely to be flexed into Monday night for Chiefs-Patriots, and that NFLN could be stuck with some pretty dire games on its Saturday slate. Chargers-Raiders seems decently likely to keep its spot, especially as the previous and following weeks have games that seem to be at risk of a Thursday night flex.

Finally, let’s take a look at the most urgent situations, the three remaining early flex weeks, each of which has at least one disappointing team. Charts for early flex weeks will only show the Sunday night and late Sunday afternoon games, with the Thursday and Monday night games not showing up even grayed out. Note also the “DAL: 6 PT” indicator, indicating a game that would max a team out on primetime appearances if it were to be flexed in. (In this case it shouldn’t be a factor: after this the only game the Cowboys have outside a featured window until the end of the season is against the lowly Panthers. All their other Sunday afternoon games should be protected.)

Over the course of the last contract, the early flex was only used, and really only ever discussed, with regards to a team with an injured star player (or a potentially game-postponing COVID situation). We haven’t seen an early flex get used for a team that’s just plain bad before, but through the first four weeks the Bears looked dire enough that if any team would warrant it it would be them. Their surprise Thursday night win in Landover may have stopped the bleeding, though, and a home win over the equally-1-4 Vikings might lend itself to the narrative that the team just might have righted the ship and wouldn’t be a complete disaster on Sunday night – especially since the Chargers are having a disappointing season of their own. Still, this is the only remaining early flex candidate with a team with only one win, and there are certainly opportunities here, which don’t necessarily exist in the other weeks.

Even if Saints-Colts is 4-2 v. 4-2 while the 2-3 teams in other Fox games fall to 2-4, it seems likely that Fox would protect a game involving an NFC East team over Saints-Colts; it would be a pretty big gap and the NFC East games might not be realistic candidates to be flexed in, but it just doesn’t seem like a game Fox would put that much importance on, and if worst came to worst they might protect Browns-Seahawks over Saints-Colts. By the same token, there’s no guarantee Saints-Colts would be flexed in even if it were the best game, and if Washington or the Rams win to get to 3-3 the league would probably prefer to flex one of those games in. There probably isn’t a reason for CBS to move away from protecting Bengals-Niners, so this is probably a situation where the winner of the Colts-Jaguars game becomes the top contender for a Sunday night move depending on what the teams in the other contending games, including the tentative, do. The Steelers are on bye so a Jaguars win would put that game at 4-2 v. 3-2, which could be mighty tempting even if Bears-Chargers is 2-4 v. 3-2, but could still be vulnerable to a game involving an NFC East team with both teams at 3-3 or better – until you factor in afternoon scheduling logistics.

Basically, if Bears-Chargers gets flexed out for a Fox game that isn’t Rams-Cowboys, either CBS would likely have to give Fox a game in order to take on Bears-Chargers, or Fox would have to give LA a “double singleheader” airing Bears-Chargers on KCOP. That could result in the league leaning on Fox to leave Rams-Cowboys unprotected if the Jaguars lose, and could make any other Fox game highly unlikely, with Browns-Seahawks probably off the table entirely – especially since it’s currently the late singleheader game going to the home markets of teams with CBS early games. On the other hand, flexing in an early CBS game could also result in some logistical headaches, maybe even bigger ones, as without any games switching networks CBS would end up with three early games and four late games, which generally isn’t acceptable, and Chiefs-Broncos is the furthest east of the 4:25 games so none of them can just be moved to the early window, so you’d still need to swap games between networks (unless CBS elects to leave Bengals-Niners unprotected and run with Chiefs-Broncos as their main late game, but that seems highly unlikely, especially if the Bengals win).

Basically, if the Jaguars win Jags-Steelers is probably the only real flex-out candidate (as long as the Titans win to make their game a plausible anchor game for the singleheader, or Fox is willing to send a good game to CBS to fill the same purpose, maybe even Rams-Cowboys); if the Colts, Rams, and Washington all win Rams-Cowboys is probably the favorite; and anything else could put the league in a heck of a spot, all before considering what the Bears and Chargers themselves do. (Frankly, if the Bears and Colts win and Rams lose, that might be enough for Bears-Chargers to keep its spot, and even the Colts result might not be needed.) Worth noting, though, that the consensus on the 506sports Discord seems to be that Washington’s game might be in just with a win over the Falcons regardless of what the Bears or Chargers do, that Fox would cling to Rams-Cowboys at all costs, that Browns-Seahawks might be the next best flex-in candidate, and that the Jaguars might be too low-wattage to ever be flexed in, Trevor Lawrence or no; I don’t think I agree with any of those things, but I did write these paragraphs when I wasn’t in the clearest headspace. Regardless, I’ll have my first Last-Minute Remarks in this new format coming on Monday before Cowboys-Chargers, at which point my thinking may have changed significantly.

Because of how short the tables are without Thursday and Monday nights, I decided to combine the remaining two weeks into a single image. Both of these weeks had started to attract attention for potential early flexes, though the Bengals finally looked like the team we’re used to seeing from them against the Cardinals. Coupled with no potential alternatives that don’t involve teams below .500 once protections come in, a win over the Seahawks might be enough for Bills-Bengals to be safe, and even a loss might not be fatal. Jets-Raiders is a more traditional “injured star player” early flex candidate, not helped by the Raiders not looking particularly impressive until their Monday night win over the Packers, and at least one and maybe even both of Niners-Jaguars and Browns-Ravens would be left unprotected – though flexing in a Fox game would result in more moving pieces to get Jets-Raiders on CBS.

I don’t have any firm positions on how Week 18 will work yet, other than a) it’ll still wait for Week 9 and b) the Playoff Picture will likely go back to appearing right before the Week 18 listing. I might continue to tweak this format as the season goes along – I’m already thinking of giving the whole table a border and not just the individual games – but I already like how this is working so far. But feel free to provide any feedback you might have, both now and as things progress.

16 thoughts on “Introducing the New NFL Flexible Scheduling Watch

  1. To “Walt’s Lover:” (Repost from the prior thread)

    There is no way the NFL would flex a game into the Christmas Eve slot as already noted. They likely had to work with local authorities to get ANY game into the Christmas Eve night slot and likely were very limited to begin with in games that could be put in that slot. Plus, NBC as noted is I believe contractually obligated to air “It’s a Wonderful Life” on Christmas Eve Night and if NBC had the slot and wanted to flex out a game they and Comcast (NBC’s parent company) would be ROASTED by religious groups over doing a flex to Christmas Eve Night (and also again, NBC likely is also facing pre-emptions in some markets for Christmas Eve religious services which also presents a problem for the NFL having a game on a broadcast outlet Christmas Eve night, which is why the game is on NFL Network in the first place as in some areas that week SNF would likely be relegated to COZI-TV, NBC’s DT-2 channel or NBCLX, NBC’s DT-3 channel).

    Chris Russo BTW went off on this on “First Take” on Wednesday on ESPN, his being upset about that and Giants-Eagles being the middle game on Christmas Day. The NFL if possible ought to look into re-doing that week’s slate (I would probably have replaced NE-DEN with JAX-TB that currently is the 4:05 singleheader game on CBS that week and on FOX Christmas Day replace NYG-PHI with DAL-MIA).

  2. Some other thoughts after reading this thread:

    Week 7: Still think we could see a Sunday-Monday flip (49ers-Vikings to SNF, Dolphins-Eagles to MNF) if the Phillies make it to NLCS and Major League Baseball asks the NFL to make that change so Turner Broadcasting isn’t stuck with Game 5 of that NLCS at 1:00 PM Eastern Time on TBS and TruTV (the NL playoffs this year are airing apparently on both outlets) if there is a rainout of Game 3, 4 or 5 (ALTHOUGH I should note if the Diamondbacks beat the Dodgers, the winner of Braves-Phillies would have home field and be hosting Games 1-2 and 6-7 so this would become moot if that happens).

    Week 8: If the Bears win this week, and especially since I would think FOX would protect Rams-Cowboys, I suspect Bears-Chargers would stay on SNF given Browns-Seahawks is the only other viable option and the Browns may be without Deshaun Watson for a while.

    Week 9: I seriously doubt Bills-Bengals gets moved for a variety of reasons.

    Week 10: Jets-Raiders likely replaced unless protected by Lions-Chargers.

    Week 11: Vikings-Broncos likely replaced unless protected by Bucs-49ers since that would be a simple swap of singleheader games.

    Week 12: Ravens-Chargers likely stays on SNF, Jags-Texans likely replaces Bears-Vikings on MNF.

    Week 13: I suspect Seahawks-Cowboys stays on TNF, Chiefs-Packers stays on SNF and Bengals-Jags remains on MNF.

    Week 14: It was noted in the prior thread that Packers-Giants could only be flexed out for Texans-Jets due to both New York teams being at home that week (unless in theory, one of those games were moved to Saturday and only aired in the local markets of the teams playing). Assuming that doesn’t happen, GB-NYG likely is on ESPN (ABC in New York and Green Bay), TEN-MIA is on ABC (ESPN in New York and Green Bay). NO WAY Eagles-Cowboys is flexed out of SNF.

    Week 15: Chargers-Raiders could be moved out of TNF, however, what would be interesting is would one of the games that could be put on Saturday instead be used to fill the TNF void? I don’t see Ravens-Jags being flexed out of SNF, Chiefs-Pats could be flexed out of MNF with perhaps “The Bay of Pigs” (Bucs-Packers) moved to MNF.

    Week 16: Saints-Rams likely stays on TNF. I don’t see any other flexes possible given it is Christmas Weekend though I did note in my prior post the NFL should consider a total re-work of that week given what Chris Russo ranted about on “First Take” on Wednesday about that as it is likely early enough to do a re-working that week’s schedule other than Saints-Rams given what we now know. I would probably have shifted Jags-Bucs to the NFL Network slot that Sunday night (both teams close by and I don’t it would have been an issue and I forgot in my prior post the Cowboys play the Saturday after Christmas at home against the Lions). NBC and Peacock have Saturday games as I believe NBC has a contractual commitment to air “It’s a Wonderful Life” on Christmas Eve AND I believe NBC affiliates in some markets would have had to pre-empt a Christmas Eve SNF telecast for religious services.

    Week 17: That week, MNF is on SATURDAY night (Lions-Cowboys) due to the College Football Playoff Semifinals being New Year’s Day/Night (and I believe is an ABC-only game). Doubt that would be flexed out anyway. I suspect Packers-Vikings gets flexed out of SNF for one of Saints-Bucs, Dolphins-Ravens or Steelers-Seahawks with another possibly replacing Jets-Browns on TNF.

    Week 18: Too early to tell.

  3. Let’s do this! Great article Morgan! I believe that the NFL will back off next year and no longer flex Thursday Night Football games.

  4. They should have flexed the Lions-Bucs into SNF and throw the Awful Giants back into the 1:00 slot that they belong in.

  5. So with Justin Jefferson expected to miss the next 4 games due to a hamstring injury and the Broncos looking bad on offense despite playing hard on defense against the Chiefs on TNF, I think Vikings at Broncos week 11 on SNF is in serious jeopardy of likely being flexed out for Bucs 49ers, Seahawks Rams, Titans Jaguars, or Steelers Browns.

  6. With the results of the morning games, I expect Week 8 SNF to be Eagles-Commies with Ravens-Cardinals moving to FOX at 1:05 to accommodate Bears-Chargers moving to CBS at 1:25. Speaking of them, Jags-Steelers is now a viable game to be CBS’s morning anchor.

  7. Isaiah:

    The Browns just beat the 49ers. Browns-Seahawks is a great candidate, however that may cause some network shifting because FOX can’t show both LA games. I’m curious to see what they do. (Eagles-Commies is also on FOX)

  8. Walt’s Lover: Hawks lost this week, and they’re probably gonna lose next week to the Cardinals. For the Browns, the NFL is probably reluctant to show Deshaun Watson. Also NFC East bias.

  9. My thoughts after Sunday’s games:

    Week 8: I suspect Bears-Chargers is flexed out especially with Justin Fields now injured. I suspect Jags-Steelers gets moved to SNF since it’s a chance to showcase Trevor Lawrence and with the Steelers being no worse than 3-3 when that decision has to be made and their national following, that makes sense to be moved.

    Week 9: I seriously doubt Bills-Bengals gets moved, especially with the Bengals now 3-3.

    Week 10: Jets-Raiders now looks more likely to stay with both 3-3 and the Raiders having their national following and the Jets beating the Eagles (for the first time ever) on Sunday.

    Week 11: Vikings-Broncos likely replaced. Seahawks-Rams now looks like a possibility especially with the Rams getting healthy and playing closer to the team that won it all two years ago.

    Week 12: Ravens-Chargers likely stays on SNF, Jags-Texans likely replaces Bears-Vikings on MNF.

    Week 13: I suspect Seahawks-Cowboys stays on TNF, Chiefs-Packers stays on SNF and Bengals-Jags remains on MNF.

    Week 14: No change from what I wrote above GB-NYG likely is on ESPN (ABC in New York and Green Bay), TEN-MIA is on ABC (ESPN in New York and Green Bay). NO WAY Eagles-Cowboys is flexed out of SNF.

    Week 15: Chargers-Raiders could be moved out of TNF, however, what would be interesting is would one of the games that could be put on Saturday instead be used to fill the TNF void? I don’t see Ravens-Jags being flexed out of SNF, Chiefs-Pats could be flexed out of MNF with perhaps “The Bay of Pigs” (Bucs-Packers) moved to MNF.

    Week 16: Saints-Rams likely stays on TNF. I don’t see any other flexes possible given it is Christmas Weekend though I did note in my prior post the NFL should consider a total re-work of that week given what Chris Russo ranted about on “First Take” this past Wednesday as it is likely early enough to do a re-working that week’s schedule other than Saints-Rams given what we now know. I would probably have shifted Jags-Bucs to the NFL Network slot that Sunday night (both teams close by and I don’t it would have been an issue). NBC and Peacock have Saturday games as I believe NBC has a contractual commitment to air “It’s a Wonderful Life” on Christmas Eve AND I believe NBC affiliates in some markets would have had to pre-empt a Christmas Eve SNF telecast for religious services.

    Week 17: For now, Jets-Browns stays on TNF. That week, MNF is on SATURDAY night (Lions-Cowboys) due to the College Football Playoff Semifinals being New Year’s Day/Night (and I believe is an ABC-only game). Doubt that would be flexed out anyway. I suspect Packers-Vikings gets flexed out of SNF for one of Saints-Bucs, Dolphins-Ravens or Steelers-Seahawks with another possibly replacing Jets-Browns on TNF.

    Week 18: Right now, I suspect Steelers-Ravens is a prime candidate for the final Sunday night slot if it’s for the AFC North as is Bills-Dolphins if that is for the AFC East with the other airing Saturday on ESPN. The NFC game on ESPN that Saturday right now looks like Cowboys-Commanders as even if that doesn’t mean anything it’s still Dallas-Washington and that in itself makes it a good game for that Saturday.

  10. Correction for Week 8:

    I forgot the Steelers play the Titans Thursday in Week 9, albeit with both games at home so playing Sunday and Thursday night is still possible. Otherwise, if not protected Rams-Cowboys could be moved.

  11. Re: “the Sunday afternoon networks are now guaranteed at least one half of each division rivalry in their respective conference.” In other words, you’re saying FOX for example would be guaranteed a DAL-PHI game, and is it half of the NFC rivalries (for FOX) or does the rule apply for either conference now?

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