Vince Lombardi

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THE ARCHIVES (2015-Part 4)

Super Bowl 50: The Case For Scavengers

Hunters may be sexy but scavengers eat just as well and incur much less risk.

It took Denver QB Peyton (P-rex) Manning 200 wins--the most any NFL QB has ever achieved--to learn this lesson. In the Broncos 24-10 win over Carolina in Super Bowl 50, P-rex showed that he could win as a scavenger.

For the first time in Super Bowl history, both QBs, P-rex and Carolina's Cam Newton failed to generate more than 2.00 player productivity, the "Mendoza Line" of NFL football labeled by QC as the JaMarcus Cable. But P-rex took better care of the football, subsidizing the Panthers with just 2 turnovers while Newton subsidized Denver with 4 turnovers.

Two of Newton's turnovers, fumbles while being sacked by Super Bowl MVP Von Miller, enabled the Broncos to scavenge 14 points. Denver DT Malik Jackson recovered the first fumble for a TD, which gave the Broncos control of the game. The Broncos recoverd the second fumble at the Carolina 5-yard line and RB C.J. Anderson's short TD run capped the scoring and iced the game.

Take away Denver's 14 scavenged points and the Panthers probably still win 10-9 despite a multitude of penalties and breakdowns on special teams. Unfortunately for Ron Rivera's team, scavenged points count every bit as much as points that are hunted down and posted.

For most of his career, P-rex was a predatory hunter who rarely was patient enough to wait for a kill to be presented for consumption. Newton currently is the NFL's most predatory force of nature. However, when Denver took away RB Jonathan Stewart (in hindsight, it is pretty clear that Carolina's offense ran through Stewart nearly as much as it did through Newton), Super Bowl 50 became a lesson for Newton that sometimes even the most dangerous predator needs to hunker down and patiently wait for a safe meal to come his way.

And neither Newton nor any other QB is the same species as P-rex. He is the last of the breed, the last Type "A" QB who gives directions more than he takes directions.

P-rex has more in common with the dinosaurs of long ago--Johnny Unitas, George Blanda and the most fearsome Type "A" QB of all-time, Norm Van Brocklin--than he does with his contemporary peers.

It was Van Brocklin who dealt Vince Lombardi his only meaningful playoff defeat when Philadelphia held off Green Bay in the 1960 NFL Championship Game.

The Type "B" QBs--Bart Starr, Joe Montana and Tom Brady--work well with the dominating head coaches--Lombardi, Bill Walsh and Bill Belichick. And history indisputably has proven that a dynasty is far more likely to be built on a dominating head coach and a compliant Type "B" QB than it is on a Type "A" QB. Only Pittsburgh's Terry Bradshaw is a candidate for the Type "A" category and, arguably, he met Steelers head coach Chuck Noll more than halfway on the issue of who would direct the play design of the team.

Only P-rex has taken four--four!-- different head coaches to the Super Bowl (Tony Dungy, Jim Caldwell, John Fox and Gary Kubiak).

In addition, by beating Carolina, P-rex joined Van Brocklin (Eagles and Los Angeles Rams) as the only QBs who have won the NFL's championship with two different teams.

That is a tasty achievement no matter how it is served.


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2015 Year End Awards

GAME PLAN OF THE YEAR: Carolina 33 Dallas 14. Head coach Ron Rivera took Carolina to Dallas for Thanksgiving with a 10-0 record but the Panthers were still only a 1-point favorite over the Cowboys, who were getting QB Tony Romo back in the lineup. It did not take long for Rivera and DC Sean McDemott's defensive design to make that handicap look silly. On the second play of the game, safety Kurt Coleman intercepted Romo and returned the pick for a touchdown. Later, MLB Luke Kuechly intercepted 2 more passes, including one he took to the house, as the Panthers defense dropped and passed receivers almost exactly as Rivera and McDermott drew up their coverages on the blackboard. LB Thomas Davis got home on a blitz and the sack ended Romo's season. The game was a defensive design masterpiece and a perfect illustration how Rivera perfectly blended design and physical play into a near perfect defense.

PAST WINNERS:
2009: New Orleans 38 New England 17
2010: Cleveland 30 New Orleans 17
2011: Denver 38 Oakland 24
2012: Atlanta 30 Seattle 28 (NFC Divisional Playoff)
2013: Philadelphia 33 Washington 27
2014: Arizona 14 Detroit 6

COACH OF THE YEAR: Bruce Arians (Arizona). This was a four horse race between Arians, Rivera, Seattle's Pete Carroll (who stumbled out of the gate but closed like the wind in the stretch), and Cincinnati's Marvin Lewis (see below). While Rivera will win almost every other COY award and he is a great candidate, Arians and the Cardinals led the NLF in play design differential for almost the entire year and finished ahead of Carolina in the final rankings. In addition, Arizona faced tougher defenses in the AFC North and NFC North than Carolina did in the AFC South and NFC East. Arians' designs bought big risk and those risks blew up Arizona in the NFC Championship Game, but the designs almost always paid off during a 13-3 regular season in which the Cardinals frequently dominated their opponents.

PAST WINNERS:
2009: Norv Turner (San Diego)
2010: Bill Belichick (New England)
2011: Wade Phillips (Houston Defensive Coordinator)
2012: Jim Harbaugh (San Francisco)
2013: Pete Carroll (Seattle)
2014: Jason Garrett (Dallas)

MOST VALUABLE PLAYER: Cam Newton (Carolina). Newton emerged as a polished pocket-passer, which combined with his running skills, made him the most dangerous player in the NFL. Without Newton's incomparable dual skills, the Panthers offense would rank near the bottom of the NFL and Carolina would have been scuffling in the wild-card race instead of making a run at a 16-0 season.

PAST WINNERS:
2009: Dallas Clark (Indianapolis)
2010: Tom Brady (New England)
2011: Aaron Rogers (Green Bay)
2012: P-rex Manning (Denver)
2013: P-rex Manning (Denver)
2014: J.J. Watt (Houston)

ROOKIE OF THE YEAR: Marcus Peters (Kansas City). Oakland WR Amari Cooper and St. Louis RB Todd Gurley both topped 1,000 yards in their first seasons and Minnesota LB Eric Kendricks (92 tackles) emerged as a force in the middle of Mike Zimmer's defense, but no rookie contributed more than Peters. He tied for the league lead in interceptions with 8 and returned 2 for scores. He also chipped in with 60 tackles as the Chiefs defense resurrected Andy Reid's team from a 1-5 start and finished with 10 straight regular season wins.

PAST WINNERS:
2009: Brian Cushing (Houston)
2010: RobAaron Gronkowski-Hernandez (New England)
2011: Patrick Peterson (Arizona)
2012: Robert Griffin, III (Washington)
2013: Kenny Vaccarro (New Orleans)
2014: Teddy Bridgewater (Minnesota)

SPECIAL TEAMS PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Johnny Hekker (St. Louis) . With Nick Foles and Case Keenum at QB, there is no way that St. Louis could have won more than 5 games without Hecker's performance. He led the NFL in punts (96), average (47.9), net average (43.9), punts inside the 20-yard line (41), and fair catches induced (25). That is about as dominating as punter can be. In the punt return game, Philadelphia's Darren Sproles remained dangerous (11.7, 2 TDs) and the only time much of anything positive happened in Cleveland was when Travis Benjamin (11.6, TD) dropped deep to return.

PAST WINNERS:
2009: Josh Cribbs (Cleveland)
2010: Devin Hester (Chicago)
2011: David Akers (San Francisco)
2012: Matt Bryant (Atlanta)
2013: Justin Tucker (Baltimore)
2014: Adam Vinatieri & Pat McAfee (Indianapolis)

JERRY JONES PATIENT OWNER OF THE YEAR AWARD. Mike Brown (Cincinnati). Yeah, the Bengals lost their first playoff game again but for almost the entire year Cincinnati was one of the 3 best teams in the NFL. Cincinnati lost 4 games by a combined 12 points and in the other loss QB Andy Dalton fractured his thumb, which caused him to miss the rest of the regular season and playoff loss to Pittsburgh. If Dalton had not been injured, the Bengals may have gotten home field throughout the playoffs and the post-season might have been different. HC Marvin Lewis' 0-5 playoff record is frustrating, but for Bengals fans who remember the dreadful 1990s, that does not nullify the joy that comes from having a team that they know can compete with any team every week of the season.

PAST WINNERS:
2009: Jerry Jones (Dallas)
2010: Arthur Blank (Atlanta)
2011: Bob McNair (Houston)
2012: Jerry Richardson (Carolina)
2013: Jerry Richardson (Carolina)
2014: Jerry Jones (Dallas)

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Super Bowl 50 Preview

Carolina (-6.0) v. Denver

PLAY DESIGN DIFFERENTIAL RANKINGS: Carolina 3rd; Denver 6th
PLAYER PRODUCITIVITY DIFFERENTIAL RANKINGS: Carolina 5th; Denver 9th
TURNOVER MARGIN RANKINGS: Carolina 1st (+20); Denver T19th (-4)
QCYPA RANKINGS: Carolina 8th; Denver 22nd
PASS PROTECTION RANKINGS: Denver 19th; Carolina 27th
D-QCYPA RANKINGS: Carolina 2nd; Denver 1st
PASS PRESSURE RANKINGS: Carolina T11th; Denver 1st

Can the NFL's last dinosaur--his days as a fearsome predator behind him--scavenge one last win against a relentless pack of hungry raptors--err, Panthers--before the earth cools on his era and both he and his species of quarterback slip quietly into the pages of the NFL's history books?

This is the question Super Bowl 50 presents as Denver and QB Peyton (P-rex) Manning prepare to take on the Carolina Panthers. The odds of the P-rex exiting as the king are long. Still, for the reasons below, QC actually likes the Broncos chances better with P-rex as a scavenger (and a defense on his side as nasty as the defense on the Carolina side) than he has the last two times the P-rex has reached the Super Bowl as a predator.

First, let's talk about the reality of the numbers.

Carolina was both better designed and enjoyed a much better turnover differential (+20 v. -4) during the regular season than Denver. The records of teams that have entered the Super Bowl with such edges are as follows:

15-2: Super Bowl record of teams with better design and turnover differential during regular season since 1981.
19-5: Super Bowl record of teams with better design and turnover differential during regular season all-time.

HC Ron Rivera and his coordinators, Sean McDermott on defense and Mike Shula on offense, have designed a truly special team. The Panthers were the better designed team in 14 of their 16 regular season games and in one of the two contests it did not matter because Tampa Bay subsidized Carolina with 5 turnovers. Carolina's 15-1 regular season was no fluke. The Panthers' design was impressive and dominant.

In addition, the defense led by LBs Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis (who may be limited by a broken arm) led the NFL with 39 takeaways. In the playoffs, Carolina coasted by Seattle and Arizona as those teams fed the Panthers 9 more turnovers.

On the surface, those statistics look troubling for Denver fans. The last time the Broncos reached the Super Bowl in 2013 against Seattle, the Seahawks also boasted a +20 turnover differential. Predator P-rex had gorged on defenses during the regular seaon (a record 55 TD passes), but P-rex threw a pair of devastating interceptions, including a back-breaking pick-6, in a blowout loss. Further, P-rex tossed 17 interceptions during the just completed 2015 season in only 10 games before being confined to the paddock with a foot injury. Yikes.

Still, as P-rex's back-to-back interception-free playoff games have demonstrated, this may be a new scavenger P-rex, not predator P-rex. In Denver's wins, P-rex has played within himself, taken sacks, and found resourceful ways to make a big play or two (e.g., hitting the deck to avoid a sack against the Steelers and then getting up to sling a controversial 30-yard completion).

It should not be lost on anyone that the one time P-rex hoisted the Lombardi Trophy afer the 2006 season, his passing production was unimpressive and the Colts prevailed by winning the turnover battle (+2) and running the ball against Chicago's Tampa-2 defense (which was designed by Rivera at the time).

In the words of Ian Malcolm, Jurassic Park's professor of chaos theory, P-rex has been "finding a way" in these playoffs.

The way that P-rex has found the last two weeks has been to abandon his customary role as the pride leader and play a supporting role to DC Wade Phillips' stifling defense.

Phillips' unit ranked first in the NFL during the regular season in both pass coverage (as measured by QC's D-QCYPA statistic) and pass pressure. As the Broncos proved in harassing New England's Tom Brady in the AFC Championship game, their defense is good enough to control a game.

Led by QB Cam Newton and OC Mike Shula, Carolina's offense has been on an impressive roll in the playoffs scoring an averge of 33 points per game. (The defense is averaging 7 points per game on the strength of interception return TDs against Seattle and Arizona by Kuechly.)

But the Panthers are not explosive in the traditional sense. As pointed out by Football Perspective's Chase Stuart (a statistical football archaeologist in the tradition of Jurrasic Park's Alan Grant; he's a digger), Carolina is the first team in NFL history to lead the league in scoring without being in the top 10 in total yards. The aroma of freshly baked opponent turnovers wafts from Stuart's statistical discovery.

However, Stuart noted another great stat that might be a little less correllated to turnovers: The Panthers are the first team since the mighty 1991 Washington Redskins to lead the NFL in both rushing attempts and scoring during the regular season. That Washington team not only went 14-2 and won the Super Bowl, but also set an NFL record for highest average margin of victory by any Super Bowl champion. Like Carolina, Washington's offense benefitted from generous turnover subsidies from its opponents (41 takeaways).

But Joe Gibbs 1991 powerhouse had something that this Carolina team does not have: Incredible pass protection. In 1991, Washington's "Hogs" surrendered just .177 yards per pass attempt on a microscopic 9 sacks while protecting for statuesque Mark Rypien, who needed plenty of time for Art Monk, et al. to get open deep. In contrast, the Panthers pass protection gave up .566 yards per pass attempt, which ranked 27th in the NFL.

While it is probably too much to expect P-rex to break out for one last huge game as his boss, John Elway, did in a 33-19 win over Atlanta in Super Bowl 33, it is quite possible Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware will crank up the heat on Newton as the NY Giants did on Brady and the unbeaten Patriots in their stunning 17-14 upset in Super Bowl 42. That is important because since 1981 those are the only two blueprints that have been successful when a team like Denver faces a Super Bowl opponent who posted superior regular season design and turnover differentials.

In light of all the available information and with the point spread rising to Carolina -6 as of this writing, the safe bet is probably to take the Panthers to win on the field, but the Broncos to cover.

But perhaps an old P-rex can learn new tricks and avoid for just one more game the turnovers that have nourished the Panthers.

It is a pure speculative guess, but QC has a hunch the P-rex can and will join Norm Van Brocklin--the archetypal "Type A" QB of which P-rex is the last of the species--as the only quarterbacks to lead two different teams to an NFL championship.

QC's Guess: Denver Broncos SU and ATS

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Conference Championship Thoughts

AMERICAN FOOTBALL CONFERENCE

The coaching stats were as close as Denver's 20-18 win over New England. The Broncos were 1.25% better designed and .31 points more productive. If the Patriots convert their bonus points after touchdown, the game ends in a tie and heads to overtime. QC had no problem with Bill Belchick rolling the dice on 4th and 10 in the fourth quarter. Denver was the better designed team from start to finish and when facing a better team a coach should not hesitate to sacrifice points to increase variance. Translation: A coach should gamble. Belichick gambled. The gamble did not pay off. But his decision to do so was still the right decision.

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NATIONAL FOOTBALL CONFERENCE

Lost in the flurry of Carson Palmer turnovers and Cam Newton big plays that defined Carolina's 49-15 win over Arizona was some nice run designs from Panthers OC Mike Shula. Particularly after Carolina took over after the Cardinals Patrick Peterson muffed a punt, Shula dialed up some nifty cross-blocking schemes that enabled Jonathan Stewart to crease Arizona's defense. Cardinals HC Bruce Arians is always a buyer of big risk. For the past few years, it has rarely caught up him. But his risk buys blew up in his face against Ron Rivera's fundamentally sound D like a 2008 mortgage backed security. Arizona was the 7th team since 2007 to finish the regular season with a higher player productivity differential than QCYPA figure. Because QCYPA drives player productivity, it is unusal for this to occur. However, none of these explosive teams ever won the Super Bowl. The teams on the list with regular season record and fate:

2007: New England (16-0): Lost Super Bowl to NY Giants
2009: San Diego (13-3): Lost Divisional Round to NY Jets
2010: San Diego (9-7): No playoffs; dreadful special teams
2011: Green Bay: (15-1): Lost Divisional Round to NY Giants
2011: New Orleans (13-3): Lost Divisional Round to San Francisco
2013: Denver (13-3): Lost Super Bowl to Seattle
2015: Arizona (13-3): Lost NFC Conference Championship to Carolina

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AFC and NFC Championship Preview

AMERICAN FOOTBALL CONFERENCE

Denver (+3) v. New England

PLAY DESIGN DIFFERENTIAL RANKINGS: Denver 6th; New England 5th
PLAYER PRODUCTIVITY DIFFERENTIAL RANKINGS: Denver 9th; New England 6th
TURNOVER MARGIN: Denver T19th (-5); New England 5th (+7)

Does the Bronco's wounded P-rex Manning have one last rampage left in him? Or has his game so fossilized that come late Sunday afternoon Denver will be the "Land of the Lost?" The AFC Championship is a battle of dinosaurs. After P-rex retires, you will never see another QB give directions to his coach like P-rex does. Likewise, when Bill Belchick finally hangs up his whistle, you will never see a single NFL coach who possesses complete knowlege of the game like Belichick. This is one battle is one to savor, like T-rex v. triceratops. The hype will be Manning v. Tom Brady. But it really is P-rex v. Belichick. As in all great dinosaur battles, one will die. It probably will be P-rex. Consider this: In 2008, QC calculated that a first down in the NFL is worth the equivalent of one point. Against Pittsburgh last week, Denver scored 9 points on drives that netted just 1 first down. The Broncos scores were derived from a strong first quarter wind and a fourth quarter failure by the Steelers to convert on fourth down, which three times set up Denver in field goal range as soon as it took possession. Take away the 8 point difference and the Broncos lose 16-15. About 15 points seems about right for P-rex against New England's stout D, which let Kansas City milk the clock between the 20's, but mostly buckled down in the red zone. Do you really think Gary Kubiak's team can run its way to victory against a Belichick defense? QC does not either. For all of these reasons, Denver will have to play like raptor pack when Brady has the ball.... smart, coordinated, and very, very hungry. Denver's defense is ranked No. 1 in D-QCYPA, but that stat is a little misleading. The only teams that ranked in the top 12 in QCYPA that the Broncos faced were Cincinnati (No. 3, but without starting QB Andy Dalton), Pittsburgh (No. 4), New England (No. 5, but without WRs Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola), and Chicago (No. 12). In other words, the second best passing game the Broncos saw at full strength all year was triggered by Jay Cutler. In the divisional round, the Steelers Ben Roethlisberger had success getting the ball to his playmakers--even without Antonio Brown--and there is no reason that Brady will struggle to do so as long as Edelman, Amendola, Rob Gronkowski and Brandon LaFell are on the field. The Broncos are strong against the run, but the Patriots are the one team that does not need to run--at all--to pile up first downs and points. This game is in Denver and not Foxboro largely because a backup New England WR muffed a punt when the teams met earlier this year and opened the door for a spirited Broncos comeback win. But that win was engineered by Brock Osweiler, not P-rex. If everything goes right for Denver, the Broncos might eke out an upset by the length of a T-rex's mini-arms. But if Denver provides a few turnover subsidies, what might be the last day of the P-rex could look like an asteroid smashing into the earth................ an extinction event.

QC's Guess: New England SU & ATS


NATIONAL FOOTBALL CONFERENCE

Carolina (-3) v. Arizona

PLAY DESIGN DIFFERENTIAL RANKINGS: Carolina 4th; Arizona 2nd
PLAYER PRODUCITIVITY DIFFERENTIAL RANKINGS: Carolina 5th; Arizona 1st
TURNOVER MARGIN: Carolina 1st (+20); Arizona 4th (+9)

You have to love the way Carolina HC Ron Rivera and GM Dave Goettleman have designed their defense. Inside at DT are Kawann Short and Star Lotulelei, a pair of active monsters that collapsed Seattle from the inside-out in the first half of the divisional round game that the Panthers led 31-0 at the half on their way to a 31-24 win. The interior power reminds QC of the great Baltimore D of 2000, which featured Tony Siragusa and Sam Adams inside. At linebacker, Rivera is channelling a little Jimmy Johnson. LBs Luke Kuechly, Thomas Davis, and Shaq Thompson all played some DB during their HS or college careers. While at Miami designing the Hurricanes defense, Johnson believed in recruiting big, speedy DBs and converting them into LBs. The speed of Carolina's LB corps puts them in position to create back-breaking turnovers, such as Kuechly's pick-6 in the first quarter against the Seahawks. At heart, Rivera is still a Tampa-2 disciple who wants to own the middle of the field with his MLB Kuechly and play sound disciplined zone in all the other areas of the field. Rivera's design has produced 16 wins in 17 games this year. But Arizona looks ideally built to attack Rivera's elegant design. First, guard Mike Iupati is the kind of mauler who can hold his own inside. Fellow interior linemen Lyle Sendlein and Ted Larsen also are first-rate professionals and Short and Lotulelei will have difficulty getting quick interior pressure on QB Carson Palmer. Second, Bruce Arians will not be attacking Kuechly and the middle of the field with a plodding tight end or mini-slot WR; he will use nasty All-Pro WR Larry Fitzgerald. Kuechly is great, but when he gets matched up with a big, fast WR, he is still overmatched as he was when Atlanta's Julio Jones went over him to grab a 70-yard TD pass and hand Carolina its only loss. Third, speedy wideouts John Brown, J.J. Nelson, and Michael Floyd are ideal weapons to attack deep on the boundary, one of the soft spots in the Tampa-2 design. The Cardinals ranked No. 5 in pass protection during the regular season and it was not because Palmer was unloading the ball quickly on short, fast passes. Palmer holds the ball and waits for his receivers, especially Floyd, to clear deep down field and his blockers usually keep the pass rushers at bay. Fourth, Arians is unlikely to abandon the run as he did last week facing the exotic blitzes Green Bay DC Dom Capers designed. In rookie RB David Johnson, Arians has a power back who can run right at the Panthers' linebackers. If the Cardinals run the ball 30 times, Carolina's D will have a hard time holding up. That will transfer the pressure to Cam Newton. Newton probably will be the NFL MVP, but he still is not ready to carry a team all by himself. The Panthers' offense is not built to win a shoot-out, at least without turnover subsidies from the opponent. Newton's biggest games came against some of the worst pass defenses in the NFL: Washington, New Orleans and the NY Giants. Arizona can cover. For Newton to succeed, the Panthers will have to run well on first down. RB Jonathan Stewart ignited the Panthers against Seattle with dash and smash on Carolina's first posssession, which ended in a TD. Stewart has to have a big game. Generally, DE Calais Campbell and friends are pretty tough to run on even though DC James Betcher has played a S, Deone Bucannon, at MLB all year. However, because Betcher loves to blitz, Arizona occassionally gives up a big play on the ground. Green Bay rushed for just 74 yards on 21 of its 22 carries last week, but on that one Eddie Lacy got loose for 61 yards to set up a TD. Betcher's unit cannot suffer any lapses like that or Stewart or Newton will make them pay. Assuming that both teams special teams are solid (the Cardinals punting and kicking has been particularly unsteady, although they have not suffered any adverse consequences), this game should turn on whether Rivera's defense, which led the league in takeaways, can turn Palmer over. Arizona's QB was shaky last week, tossing a pair of picks including a ghastly one in the Packer's end zone. The bet here is that Arizona's pass protectors rise to the occasion, protect Palmer, and Bruce Arians bombs his way into the Super Bowl.

QC's Guess: Arizona SU & ATS

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Divisional Round Thoughts

AMERICAN FOOTBALL CONFERENCE

New England's 27-20 win over Kansas City was not nearly as close as the score suggests. After Tom Brady connected with Julian Edelman for an 11-yard gain on the third play from scrimmage for the Patriots' initial first down, Brady pretty much took whatever he wanted. New England never trailed and always seemed to have control of the game. When Edelman injured his foot in the regular season, the Patriots were 10-0 and 4.88% better designed than their opponents and 4.85 points more productive. Those were the best numbers in the AFC at the time and nothing about his team's performance against the Chiefs, who had won 11 straight games, would cause anyone to doubt that--with Edelman--New England is still the best team in the conference.

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Pittsburgh was much the better designed team for most of the game against Denver, but the Broncos advanced, 23-16, on the strength of special teams and one big turnover. A couple of short first quarter punts led to a pair of Denver field goals and an early 6-0 lead without any offensive production. Then, with the Steelers leading 13-12 and driving toward what may have been a clinching TD, Fitzgerald Toussaint fumbled and DeMarcus Ware recovered. The Broncos ground game found life and drove to Denver's only TD and the win.

NATIONAL FOOTBALL CONFERENCE

Should have Green Bay HC Mike McCarthy "sold short" and gone for a 2-point conversion and the win after Aaron Rogers and Jeff Janis combined for a miraculous TD as time expired? Yes, he probably should have. Instead, McCarthy played the game "long" and Arizona scored a TD on the first play of OT to win, 26-20. Until Rogers found Janis twice for 101 yards in the closing seconds, the Packers productivity was below the JaMarcus Cable. Only a well designed defensive plan by DC Dom Capers and a long run by RB Eddie Lacy kept the Packers within one score. ESPN's Bill Barnwell wrote the day after the game, "It's almost always better for the underdog to try to turn the game into a shorter contest." That's usually true, although the choice also depends on how productive the underdog and how productive the favorite are in the moment. On this day, with a cobbled together passing game, the Packers' best chance to steal the win would have been to come down to a single play with the ball in its possession and control.

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The coaching stats in Carolina's 31-24 win over Seattle were surprisingly even. Indeed, the Seahawks even were a tiny bit better designed and more productive than the victorious Panthers. That does not mean, however, that Seattle was better coached. It is not unusual for a well-coached team that is the beneficiary of an opponent's turnover subsidies to play conservatively. Why take the risk of hunting if the opponent is willing to feed you? In the end, an interception return for a TD by Carolina LB Luke Kuechly provided the winning margin between evenly matched foes.

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Divisional Round Playoff Preview

AMERICAN FOOTBALL CONFERENCE

Denver (-6.5) v. Pittsburgh

PLAY DESIGN DIFFERENTIAL RANKINGS: Denver 6th; Pittsburgh 7th
PLAYER PRODUCTIVITY DIFFERENTIAL RANKINGS: Denver 9th; Pittsburgh 4th
TURNOVER MARGIN: Denver T19th (-5); Pittsburgh T15th (+2)

The four teams still standing in the AFC ranked fifth (New England), sixth (Denver), seventh (Pittsburgh) and eighth (Kansas City) in play design differential during the regular season and there is a less .6% difference between the best designed team and the worst. Both teams in this matchup have major question marks at QB. For Denver, P-rex Manning has missed the last 2 months with a foot injury. Moreover, he had the lowest passer rating in the NFL before the injury. For Pittsburgh, Ben Roethlisberger will try to go with a bum shoulder. When the Steelers rallied to beat the Broncos in the regular season, WR Antonio Brown caught 17 passes, but he will not play if he cannot get out of the concussion protocol. Still, all of this is a side show. Defense will determine who wins this game. Pittsburgh's pass rush found new life in 2015 and if they can get to Manning and create turnovers, the Steelers will have a great chance. But the Steelers defense is a hit-or-miss proposition. The Broncos D is stingy on every play. Denver led the NFL in both D-QCYPA and pass pressure and also yielded the fewest yards per rush attempt. Pittsburgh will not be able to control the clock on the ground like it did against Cincinnati. The coaching statistics suggest a close game and even a Steelers win. But occasionally the game day sample is so different from the data piled up over the course of the season that one has to go against the numbers. Look for the Denver defense to stifle the Steelers and P-rex to roar more like his old self and the Broncos to win comfortably.

QC's Guess: Denver SU & ATS

New England (-5) v. Kansas City

PLAY DESIGN DIFFERENTIAL RANKINGS: New England 4th; Kansas City 8th
PLAYER PRODUCITIVITY DIFFERENTIAL RANKINGS: New England 6th; Kansas City 8th
TURNOVER MARGIN: New England 5th (+7); Kansas City 2nd (+14)

Kansas City rolls into Gillette Stadium while New England limps in. Since Week 5, the Chiefs' play design differential has improved from -..0232 to +.0236 while the Patriots have declined from +.0627 to +.0294. During the same period, KC is +16 TO while New England has been +3 TO. The Patriots will get WR Julian Edelman back from an injury and that will help Tom Brady a lot. New England has won the last 14 games when Edelman has played. But the Chiefs have a versatile, deep, and talented secondary led by corners Sean Smith and Marcus Peters. Safety Eric Berry is also playing at a high-level and could neutralize sore-kneed Rob Gronkowski. KC will not have RB Jamal Charles as it did when it smashed the Patriots 41-14 in September of 2014, but backup Knile Davis ran for over 100 yards that night and Chandarick West and Spencer Ware are also available. Bill Belichick has his best pass rush in years and conservative KC QB Alex Smith occassionally will take so many sacks that the Chiefs never get out from behind the chains. In addition, WR Jeremy Macklin will at least be slowed by an ankle injury and may miss the game altogether. If Macklin can play at 80% or better, it will take some pressure off TE Travis Kelce and it will not be a surprise if the Chiefs win. But New England almost never loses in Foxboro in the playoffs. Take the Patriots again, but also take the points.

QC's Guess: New England SU; Kansas City ATS

NATIONAL FOOTBALL CONFERENCE

Arizona (-7)v. Green Bay

PLAY DESIGN DIFFERENTIAL RANKINGS: Arizona 2nd; Green Bay 18th
PLAYER PRODUCITIVITY DIFFERENTIAL RANKINGS: Arizona 1st; Green Bay 16th
TURNOVER MARGIN: Arizona 4th (+9); Green Bay T10th (+5)

The three best designed teams still in the playoffs all reside in the NFC including Arizona, which led the NFL in play design differential for most of the season and is by far the most productive and explosive team in the legaue. Nobody knows that better than Green Bay, which got boat-raced in the desert just a few weeks ago. Bruce Arians team is rested and fit--save injuries to RB Chris Johnson and S Tyrone Mathieu. Washington QB Kirk Cousins pierced the Packers early in the wild-card game, but then Green Bay DC Dom Capers cranked up the pass rush and slowed the Redskins roll. That is not likely to happen again as Arians does not hesitate to max protect so QB Carson Palmer can strike down the field to WR Larry Fitzgerald and company. Rookie RB David Johnson has developed into a thumper with a burst and veteran RB Andre Ellington is a versatile receiving threat. The Cardinals will score and Green Bay's Aaron Rogers will have to keep up. He could not do that last time because he spent most of the game on his back as the Cardinals sacked him and backup Scott Tolzien 9 times. HC Mike McCarthy had to play backup center J.C. Tretter at left tackle last week in Washington and things looked shaky when the Redskins sacked Rogers for a safety in the first quarter. But that was the last time Rogers went down and power backs Eddie Lacy and James Starks used some nifty run designs from McCarthy and OC Tom Clements to get rolling. Arizona is much tougher to run on and while it would be a surprise if the Cardinals middle of the pack pass rush again overwhelms Rogers, this Green Bay offense still is not what it has been in prior years. Look for the Packers to stay within a touchdown or less into the third quarter but Arians and Palmer have too much firepower and the Cardinals will pull away unless Palmer provides 3 or more turnover subsidies.

QC's Guess: Arizona SU & ATS

Carolina (-2.5)v. Seattle

PLAY DESIGN DIFFERENTIAL RANKINGS: Carolina 4th; Seattle 1st
PLAYER PRODUCITIVITY DIFFERENTIAL RANKINGS: Carolna 5th; Seattle 2nd
TURNOVER MARGIN: Carolina 1st (+20); Seattle T6th (+6)

Seattle got to Carolina on a free pass courtesy of Vikings kicker Blair Walsh, who pushed a 27-yard game-winning field goal wide last week in arctic Minnesota. Cam Newton and the Panthers rallied to knock off the Seahawks on the road in Week 5. But it was a fluky win. The Seahawks were better designed and +2 turnovers and an NFL team that enjoys such edges wins more than 95% of the time. These teams are almost perfectly matched, although their strenths are not identical. The Panthers led the league in turnover differential (+20) while Seattle was No. 1 in play design differential and No. 2 in player productivity. In other words, if Russell Wilson does not turn the ball over (and he usually can be counted on not to do so), the Seahawks are just as likely as Carolina to prevail. QC's book on how to play Pete Carroll's team used to be to play ugly: takes sacks rather than risk, don't be afraid to punt, force Wilson to drive the ball because Seattle did not have big-play ability on the outside, and slug it out in the trenches. The Panthers are now better equipped to play that type of game than Seattle. But Seattle OC Darrelll Bevell's modus operandi has changed. Bevell probably will try to spread the Panthers out so that Wilson and WRs Doug Baldwin and Tyler Lockett can operate in space. If the scoring tempo picks up, Seattle will have the advantage. Carolina OC Mike Shula will try to pound the Seahawks on the ground as RB Jonathan Stewart is ready to go and Newton can run with power as well as any RB in the NFL. But Pete Carroll's D usually is still stout against the run. If Stewart cannot get going, Newton will have to carry the load and the Seahawks secondary has more than enough talent to make the Panthers relatively pedestrian receiving corps disappear.

QC's Guess: Seattle SU & ATS

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Why QC Likes Hue Jackson

It looks like analytics are working so far in Cleveland.

The Browns hired Hue Jackson as their head coach today. QC's coaching analytics suggest Jackson was the best HC candidate on the market. Here is a year-by-year breakdown that explains why QC likes Jackson.

2010: Jackson arrives in Oakland as Tom Cable's new offensive coordinator. He joins a team that was in 2009 on average a whopping 7.15% worse designed than its opponents, averaged a tepid 5.478 QCYPA, and was -13 TO in the giveaway/takeaway column. In 2010, with Jackson designing the offense, the Raiders are only .59% worse designed than their opponents, average a respectable 6.857 QCYPA, and are -2 TO. CONCLUSION: Oakland IMMEDIATELY improved from in the bottom 5 in the NFL in key statistical areas to middle of the pack. The Raiders took a big step in the right direction. Did Oakland also greatly improve at QB? Well, the Raiders switched from JaMarcus Russell (terrible), Bruce Gradkowski (eh), and Charlie Frye (oh no, a former Browns QB!) to Jason Campbell (charitably, a journeymen) and Gradkoswski (still, eh). Oakland got a little better playmaking at QB, but it was not anything one would have a hard time finding on the street or in a modest trade in most years.

2011: Al Davis fires Cable and installs Jackson as head coach, but Jackson forfeits an off-season of preparation to a lockout that is the centerpiece of a management/union dispute. Still, Oakand significantly improves again as the Raiders finish the season 2.16% better designed than their opponents, average a robust 7.942 QCYPA, and -4 TO. Oakland improves despite the fact Cambell is lost to a broken collarbone and replaced with Kyle Boller (blech) and then with Carson Palmer, who prepared for the season by surfing for 8 weeks. In addition, Davis passes away a third of the way into the season and the future of the franchise falls into hands of his son, Mark Davis, who freely admits he does not know much about football. CONCLUSION: Even when unexpected and bad things occur--and it is 100% such things will occur in the NFL--Jackson's team improved AGAIN. Year-over-year growth in the NFL is hard and always impressive. Year-over-year growth with plug-in QBs and an unstable front office is VERY impressive. Still, the new general manager--Reggie McKenzie--wants "his guy." (Translation: Somebody who owes him unquestioning allegiance for his job.) McKenzie replaces Jackson with completely unproven Dennis Allen. The Raiders immediately return to the NFL cellar. Hmmm.

2012: Jackson joins Marvin Lewis in Cincinnati in a support role. The Bengals immediately improve from .98% worse designed than their opponents in 2011 to 2.32% better designed than their opponents. QCYPA also improves from 6.678 to 7.145. Jackson is not the OC, but he is in the room with Jay Gruden and QB Andy Dalton, who are both in only their second year in the NFL. CONCLUSION: Postive growth after Jackson joins a team is now looking like a solid trend. Still, as he is not in a coordinator's role, it is not clear that this incident of improvement should be credited primarily to Jackson.

2013: Jay Gruden is still holding the title of OC and the Bengals add standout rookies in TE Tyler Eifert and RB Giovanni Bernard and second-year WR Marvin Jones emerges as a dangerous complement to WR A.J. Green. Cincinnati again improves to 5.32% better designed than its opponents (second in the NFL to Super Bowl champion Seattle). QCYPA also rises to 7.615. Under DC Mike Zimmer, D-QCYPA is second in the NFL behind Seattle's incredible pass D. CONCLUSION: The Bengals big leap is mostly attributable to the emergence of 3 new playmakers and Zimmer's defensive design. But somebody is designing the plays for the new offensive playmakers to execute. Is it primarily Gruden? Or is Jackson significantly influencing the offensive game plan? It is hard to see. But what is not hard to see is that the team employing Jackson has improved for a fourth straight year.

2014: Jay Gruden leaves to become the HC in Washington and Jackson takes on the title of OC. For the first time in 5 years, his team regresses as the Bengals are only 1.46% better designed than their opponents and QCYPA drops to 7.184. These are still respectable, top-half of the NFL figures, but regression is something that always should be examined. Upon inspection, one finds that Eifert and Jones miss the entire season leaving Green as Dalton's only viable down-field and red zone threat. By the end of the year, Jackson is lining up RB Rex Burkhead at WR because the Bengals are simply out of bodies. Further, without DC Mike Zimmer who is now coaching Minnesota, the Cincinnati pass pressure on opposing QBs is the worst in the NFL, which further explains the decline in overall play design +/-. CONCLUSION: Jackson keeps the Bengals competitive with less than a full complement of weapons and the decline in pass pressure on defense is not Jackson's responsibility. Meanwhile in Washington, Gruden's QBs (RG3, Kirk Cousins and Colt McCoy) post a robust 7.727 QCYPA, but TOs (-12) and terrible defense sabotage the Redskins (4-12). The declines in Cincinnati are explainable, but for Jackson to re-emerge as a strong HC candidate, the Bengals need to bounce back in 2015.

2015: Jackson and the Bengals rebound with a BOOM! as Eifert and Jones return to the lineup. Cincinnati finishes the season 5.74% better designed than its opponents, the third best figure in the league and the best in the AFC. QCYPA is 8.383, also third best in the NFL and best in the AFC. Turnover differential is significantly positive at +11. Cincinnati is 10-2 when injury strikes again. Dalton breaks his thumb against Pittsburgh and the Bengals lose. But Cincinnati rallies with backup A.J. McCarron at QB to beat two teams it should be beat (San Francisco and Baltimore) and battle one of the NFL's other power teams (Denver) into overtime on the road. In the playoff rematch with the Steelers in awful weather, McCarron rescues Cincinnati from a 15-0 fourth quarter deficit only to see victory slip away when Jeremy Hill fumbles and Ben Roethlisberger and penalties move Pittsburgh into position to win on a last second field goal. CONCLUSION: The 2014 regression probably was an aberration attributable to the injuries to Eifert and Jones. The team employing Jackson has improved in 5 of the last 6 years and has never had a losing record. When turnover +/- is +8 or greater, Jackson's offense has a chance to be an elite NFL offense that can carry a team.

My guess is that Cleveland's Paul DePodesta and Sashi Brown looked at metrics similar to those set forth here. They probably saw the consistent year-over-year improvement that follows Jackson around and is the signature of a strong HC candidate.

There is still much work to be done in Cleveland. An NFL team cannot improve and win consistently without a stable QB who is at least the quality of Andy Dalton. The Browns do not currently have such a QB on their roster. Jackson also will need a solid play designer on the defensive side of the ball. His overall play design +/- was helped by Zimmer and Paul Guenther designing defense in Cincinnati.

There are no guarantees with any new NFL HC.

But QC's coaching analytics suggest that Cleveland has taken a solid step in the right direction by hiring Jackson.

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Wild-Card Thoughts

AMERICAN FOOTBALL CONFERENCE

Those calling for the Cincinnati to fire HC Marvin Lewis after back-to-back personal fouls led to a late Pittsburgh field goal and an 18-16 loss would do best to settle down. The Bengals were the best designed team in the AFC in 2015 and also had the best turnover differential in the conference. It was the second time in the past 3 years Cincinnai was the best designed team in the AFC. Lewis, Hue Jackson and Paul Guenther did an oustanding job during the game driving the Bengals to not quite competing and they almost stole a game they had no business winning. Despite what many think, coaches do not and cannot "control" players' emotions on the field. Coaches can only control plays. Lewis has been doing a fine job in that area, although his 0-5 record does not reflect it.

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Kansas City coasted by Houston 30-0 as Chiefs RB Knile Davis returned the opening kickoff 106 yards for a TD and the KC defense intercepted Texans QB Brian Hoyer 4 times.

NATIONAL FOOTBALL CONFERENCE

Green Bay looked like it would quickly exit from the playoffs when Washington sacked Aaron Rogers for a safey and jumped to an early 11-0 lead. But the Redskins did not register another sack and the Packers steadied themselves enough to take the lead by halftime. After the intermission, Julius Peppers, Clay Matthews, Jr., and Mike Neal cranked up the heat on Kirk Cousins and road the pass rush wave to 35-18 win. In doing so, DC Dom Capers quickly transformed Cousins from the presumptive QB of the future into a question mark as Washington still has not ever beaten a team with a winning record in a game started by Cousins.

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The coaching stats in Seattle's 10-9 win were as close as the final score. The Seahawks were .4% better designed than the Vikings and a mer .08 points more productive. Each team suffered a turnover and a special teams breakdown (Seattle punter Jon Ryan could not handle a low snap and face planted after unsuccessfully attempting to first scamper and then hurdle his way to a first down). But the only error that will be remembered is Minnesota K Blair Walsh shanking what would have been a game winning 27-yard field goal.

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Wild-Card Round Playoff Preview

AMERICAN FOOTBALL CONFERENCE

Houston (+3) v. Kansas City

PLAY DESIGN DIFFERENTIAL RANKINGS: Houston 11th; Kansas City 7th
PLAYER PRODUCTIVITY DIFFERENTIAL RANKINGS: Houston 13th; Kansas City 8th
TURNOVER MARGIN: Houston T10th (+5); Kansas City 2nd (+14)

This game will be decided by pass protection and turnovers. Both play excellent defense and feature strong pass rush. But the Texans' pass rushers (JJ Watt, Whitney Mercilus, and Jadaeveon Clowney) seem a little bit healthier than the Chiefs' pass rushers (Justin Houston, Tamba Hali and Dee Ford). On the other hand, Houston lost starting LT Duane Brown to an injury in the season finale. That could be a problem. Kansas City is on a 10 game win streak that began when QB Alex Smith and his teammates eliminated all turnovers for a montha and a half. Houston climbed over the Colts in the AFC South when it got its TO differential right-side up. Both teams have lunch bucket-type running backs and one dangerous WR, the Texans DeAndre Hopkins and the Chiefs Jeremy Macklin. Look for a low scoring game and for underrated Houston QB Brian Hoyer to eke out just enough productivity for the Texans to advance.

QC's Guess: Houston Texans SU & ATS

Cincinnati (+2.5) v. Pittsburgh

PLAY DESIGN DIFFERENTIAL RANKINGS: Cincinnati 3rd; Pittsburgh 8th
PLAYER PRODUCITIVITY DIFFERENTIAL RANKINGS: Cincinnati 3rd; Pittsburgh 4th
TURNOVER MARGIN: Cincinnati 3rd (+11); Pittsburgh T15th (+2)

Cincinnati has been the best all-around team in the AFC for most of the year, but will almost assuredly be without starting QB Andy Dalton. Offensive coordinator Hue Jackson has been masterful guiding backup A.J. McCarron since he was pressed into action in a loss to the Steelers just a month ago. McCarron is confident and has the tools to hurt a Pittsburgh secondary that is vulerable if the opposition does not provide turnover subsidies. In addition, McCarron will have TE Tyler Eifert, who missed both the last game with Pittsburgh and a loss in Denver with a concussion, the only games the Bengals lost without Dalton. On the other side of the ball, the Steelers at best will have a hobbled DeAngelo Williams at RB (ankle). WR Antonio Brown is a matchup nightmare for every team. But as long as Brown does not go off for astro-catches and yards, Cincinnati has enough cover corners to force Ben Roethlisberger to throw into the center of the field where S Reggie Nelson lurks and has had an All-Pro year. On the road, one usually can expect Big Ben to throw one "what was he thinking" interception and the Steelers do not have that kind of margin for error in this game.

QC's Guess: Cincinnati Bengals SU & ATS

NATIONAL FOOTBALL CONFERENCE

Washington (+1) v. Green Bay

PLAY DESIGN DIFFERENTIAL RANKINGS: Washington 14th; Green Bay 18th
PLAYER PRODUCITIVITY DIFFERENTIAL RANKINGS: Washington 15th; Green Bay 16th
TURNOVER MARGIN: Washington 14th (+4); Green Bay T10th (+5)

It is a little hard to believe that the hottest QB entering the NFL playoffs is in this game and it is not Green Bay's Aaron Rogers. Washington's Kirk Cousins was the NFL's Offensive Player of the Month in December when his torrid finish lifted the Redskins to the NFC East championship. The Redskins have not run the ball very effectively this year, but Alfred Morris finished the regular season with a 100-yard effort against Dallas and Dom Capers' defenses are always a little spongy against the run. Still, Jay Gruden's plan probably will be to turn Cousins, Pierre Garcon, Jordan Reed, and DeSean Jackson loose. For the Packers too slow Cousins and crew, Capers should put towering Julius Peppers inside and try to generate gut pressure to disrupt Cousins and lure ill-advised throws. Green Bay's offense has been stuck in second gear for some time now, but the good news is that Washington's defense is not very menacing. Only the Giants, 49ers, and (woeful) Saints ranked below the Redskins in D-QCYPA. Washington brings a comptent pass rush, so the key for Mike McCarthy and OC Tom Clements will be finding enough protection for Rogers to operate. As the coaching statistics indicate, this game is a pure pick 'em. Pure hunch: Green Bay protects Rogers enough and Cousins falters enough for the playoff-tested Packers to advance.

QC's Guess: Green Bay Packers SU & ATS

Minnesota (+5) v. Seattle

PLAY DESIGN DIFFERENTIAL RANKINGS: Minnesota 19th; Seattle 1st
PLAYER PRODUCITIVITY DIFFERENTIAL RANKINGS: Minnesota 18th; Seattle 2nd
TURNOVER MARGIN: Minnesota T10th (+5); Seattle T6th (+6)

The last time the best-designed team in the regular season traveled to the worst-designed team to make the playoffs was 2011 when Pittsburgh traveled to Denver to meet Tim Tebow. On what might have been master defensive play designer Dick LeBeau's worst day as a professional, Tebow averaged 16 QCYPA and the Broncos stunned the Steelers in overtime. In the context of coaching statistics, a Minnesota upset of Seattle would not quite be on that level, but it would be quite a contrarian result. When these teams met a couple months ago, the Seahawks dominated from start to finish in a 38-0 romp. For Mike Zimmer's team to stay in the game, Adrian Peterson has to get at least 24 carries and the Vikings need to generate at least one TD on defense or special teams. In other words, Minnesota needs a game like when St. Louis beat Seattle 23-17 in Week 16. It could happen. The Vikings play design numbers are depressed by terrible pass protection (and Norv Turner's inability to design around his offensive line limitations; only Miami protected its QB worse.) If Peterson can get at least a little traction and Bridgewater can find Stefon Diggs a few times, Zimmer's defense is capable of jarring loose some turnovers from Russell Wilson, Marshawn Lynch, and Doug Baldwin. Minnesota is in the playoffs because of their 5-2 record in games where the better designed team lost. It is highly likely the Seahawks will be the better designed team in this encounter and better designed teams win about 75% of all NFL games. So QC cannot pick the Vikings to win straight up. But there is enough evidence to suggest Zimmer's team will not go quietly into the cold Minnesota night.

QC's Guess: Seattle SU; Minnesota ATS

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