20 bold predictions for the 2014 NFL season

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By Mike Batista
TheSportsDaily

Let the (real) NFL games begin.

The 2014 preseason is over. In less than a week, we'll actually recognize most of the players we're watching.

What does the upcoming season have in store? Who will be this year's surprise playoff teams? Which rookies will become instant stars? Which records will be broken? The only thing that we can safely predict is that we'll be shocked on more than one occasion.

So why bother playing it safe with our predictions? Let's go out on a limb with 20 bold predictions for the 2014 NFL season.

20 bold predictions for the 2014 NFL season

The 2014 wide receiver draft class will be as successful as the crop of quarterbacks drafted in 1983

The 1983 NFL Draft is remembered for Dan Marino, John Elway and Jim Kelly.

This year’s class will be remembered in a similar fashion because of Brandin Cooks, Jordan Matthews and Kelvin Benjamin–three go-to offensive weapons that their respective teams can build around.

Matthews led all receivers with 15 receptions through the first three preseason games. He caught all nine passes thrown his way in the Eagles’ Week 2 matchup. Don’t be surprised if the second-round pick surpasses Jeremy Maclin and Riley Cooper to become Nick Foles’ top target this season.

Cooks is another dynamic rookie who could quickly move up the depth chart. Marques Colston, 31, and Robert Meachem, who will be 30 in December, are currently the Saints’ top two receivers.

Benjamin, the “star of Panthers camp,” according to ESPN.com, led the team with eight catches for 117 yards through three preseason games. With the departure of Steve Smith, the Panthers need Benjamin to learn quickly.

Other receivers to watch include the Bills’ Sammy Watkins, the Broncos’ Cody Latimer (especially if Wes Welker misses a lot of time) and the Cardinals’ John Brown.

(AP Photo/Bill Haber)

Kirk Cousins will start several games -- for another team

Sure, Robert Griffin III is struggling. He completed 13 of 20 passes in the preseason for 141 yards with no touchdowns and two interceptions. But the Redskins gave up three first-round draft picks and a second-round pick to take Griffin in the 2012 draft. He’s their man.

Instead of sitting Griffin in favor of Cousins, who they drafted in the fourth round in 2012, we predict the Redskins will trade him during the season and recoup at least some of the draft-pick value they they gave up to get Griffin.

The Redskins would want at least a second-round pick for Cousins, according to the Washington Post. They can get that and more from a desperate team with an injured starter.

The Colts and Chiefs have suspect offensive lines. That puts in harm’s way Andrew Luck (backed up by Matt Hasselbeck, who turns 39 next month) and Alex Smith (backed up by Chase Daniel).

Blaine Gabbert backs up Colin Kaepernick in San Francisco (more on the 49ers later); Dan Orlovsky is the next man up if anything happens to Matthew Stafford in Detroit; Charlie Whitehurst is the understudy for Jake Locker, who has yet to play a 16-game season in Tennessee; and Kellen Clemens is the man if Philip Rivers goes down in San Diego.

Cousins isn’t exactly Joe Montana. He’s appeared in eight games in his career and has eight touchdown passes and 10 interceptions. But a team with an in-season quarterback injury would look at him with beer goggles.

(AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

Richie Incognito lands with the Colts

We won’t have to wait long to see if this one comes true.

Colts left guard Donald Thomas is out for the season with a quadriceps injury. Center Khaled Holmes has missed time in the preseason with an ankle injury.

So far in the Andrew Luck Era, the Colts have reached both the wild card and divisional rounds of the playoffs. They’d like to take that at least a step further this season, but the offensive line could be a problem. Not only does Luck need time to throw in what is expected to be an up-tempo offense, but enigmatic running back Trent Richardson needs holes to run through.

If the Colts can stomach one bad apple, it’s worth the risk. Their top draft pick is guard Jack Mewhort. Richie Incognito would have a chance to try some new mentoring habits.

(AP Photo/David Duprey, File)

Mark Sanchez will start at least one game for the Eagles

Maybe this isn’t the boldest prediction, considering there are three ways it can happen.

Nick Foles could experience a letdown following his 27-touchdown, two-interception season. There have been signs this preseason that it could happen. The third-year signal caller threw for two touchdowns and three interceptions through three games, and despite his dismantling of the Steelers’ defense in Week 3 of the preseason, he was off the mark on several passes.

Mark Sanchez, meanwhile, connected on seven of nine passes against the Steelers’ starters in the Eagles 31-21 preseason victory. This is a quarterback who led the New York Jets to two straight AFC championship games. Chip Kelly won’t be afraid to call on Sanchez if Foles goes into a slump.

Another possibility is that Foles could get hurt. Eagles quarterbacks were sacked 46 times last season. Foles was the victim 28 times in 10 starts.

Finally, Sanchez could get into the starting lineup through the back door. It wouldn’t be surprising to see the Eagles win the NFC East so comfortably that they can rest starters late in the season.

(AP Photo/Elise Amendola)

The Cowboys will finish 8-8...again

The Cowboys will set an NFL record with their fourth straight 8-8 season, and they’ll follow a pattern similar to their previous 8-8 campaigns. They’ll have a winning record at some point December and go out with a loss.

At least Dallas’ demise won’t be prime-time material this season. The Cowboys won’t be in contention for the NFC East title by Week 17 and the division won’t send two teams to the playoffs, so their loss at Washington in the season finale won’t be flexed to a night game.

The Cowboys were 8-6 and finished with two losses in 2011 and 2012. Last season, they were 8-7 and lost at home to Philadelphia in the game that decided the division title.

Those letdowns will seem tame compared to the Cowboys’ epic collapse this season. They’ll be 8-4 after beating the Eagles on Thanksgiving, then go 0-for-December. The Cowboys’ defense, which allowed a league-high 415 yards per game last season and will be without Sean Lee in 2014, will be shredded by Jay Cutler at Chicago in Week 14, Nick Foles at Philadelphia in Week 15 and Andrew Luck in Dallas in Week 16.

With nothing to play for, the Cowboys will lose at Washington in Week 17.

Once again, they’ll pair snowmen next to their name in the standings.

(AP Photo/Tim Sharp)

The Jets will make the playoffs

No, you’re not on Candid Camera. This isn’t a practical joke.

If the Jets could get to 8-8 last season after ranking 29th in scoring with a 66.5 passer rating from Geno Smith, they can make the playoffs this season with an improved offense in a relatively weak AFC.

The Jets added running back Chris Johnson and wide receiver Eric Decker. Johnson, who will turn 29 in September, might no longer be CJ2K, but the Jets can count on him to be CJ1K. He’s never fallen short of 1,000 rushing yards in his career.

Decker won’t put up the eye-popping numbers that he did when he had Peyton Manning throwing to him, but he gives the Jets a legitimate No. 1 receiver.

Sure, the secondary will give Rex Ryan some sleepless nights. Dee Milliner is injured and might not be ready to go in Week 1, and Dimitri Patterson is suspended after not showing up for the Jets’ preseason game against the Giants.

However,  the Jets’ front seven will cover the holes in the secondary. Defensive linemen Muhammad Wilkerson, Sheldon Richardson and Damon Harrison all received positive grades from Pro Football Focus for their performance against the Giants in Week 3 of the preseason.

For that matter, rookie safety Calvin Pryor, fill-in cornerback Darrin Walls and linebackers Quinton Coples and Demario Davis also graded positively.

The Jets’ run to the playoffs will be aided by a 4-2 record in the AFC East. They’ll go 3-1 against the Dolphins and Bills, two teams that will struggle to put points on the board this season, and split with the Patriots.

Then maybe they’ll get another shot at the Patriots in the playoffs.

(AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)

Tom Brady will show his age

The signs were there last year that Tom Brady isn’t getting any younger. He registered his lowest passer rating (87.3) and completion percentage (60.5) since 2003 (not counting 2008, when he suffered a knee injury and was ruled out for the season in Week 1).

Brady wasn’t bad in the AFC championship game overall, completing 24 of 38 passes in the Patriots’ 26-16 loss to the Denver Broncos, but he was badly off the mark on at least one pass to a wide-open receiver in the end zone.

It would help the 37-year-old Brady if two-time Pro Bowl tight end Rob Gronkowski could stay healthy. But Gronkowski hasn’t played a full season since 2011, and he didn’t play in the Patriots’ Week 3 preseason game. Even if Gronkowski’s knee allows him to play 16 games, Brady is three years older than he was in 2011. In 2014, Brady won’t be the same quarterback he was three years ago.

(AP Photo/Joe Mahoney)

Ryan Tannehill's sacks will outnumber Mike Wallace's receptions

Mike Wallace caught a career-high 73 passes last season while Ryan Tannehill was sacked a league-high 58 times.

Maybe Tannehill won’t be sacked that many times this season, but whatever the number, it will be more than the number of times Wallace catches a pass.

Deep, vertical routes are Wallace’s bread and butter. It takes time to get open for those, however, and Tannehill won’t have that kind of time behind the Dolphins’ mess of an offensive line.

Tannehill will go into the season with five new starters trying to protect him. According to the Boston Globe, the Dolphins are the first team since 2004 to go into a season with five new starters on the offensive line.

Center Mike Pouncey could have helped stabilize the situation, but he had hip surgery and won’t be ready for the start of the season.

Branden Albert, a free-agent signing from Kansas City, will be Tannehill’s blind-side protector at left tackle. At the other end of the line, however, is rookie Ju’Wuan James. The Dolphins are likely to embark on the season with Daryn Colledge at left guard, Samson Satele at center and Shelley Smith at right guard. Providing depth with be Dallas Thomas, who according to Pro Football Focus was the worst-rated guard through the first three preseason games.

Colledge was released by the Cardinals and Satele was released by the Colts after the 2013 season.

A ramshackle offensive line isn’t the only challenge the Dolphins’ offense faces this season. They also have to adjust to a new offensive coordinator, Bill Lazor. That’s not easy for any offense.

(AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)

Joe Philbin, Doug Marrone and Jason Garrett will be fired after the season

The aforementioned offensive line woes will contribute to a disappointing season in Miami. Joe Philbin is already on the hot seat after the Dolphins blew a playoff berth by losing their final two games last season.

The Bills’ season was cursed when linebacker Kiko Alonso tore his ACL before training camp even began. It will become increasingly apparent that drafting EJ Manuel was a mistake as the Bills finish with the worst record in NFL. But it won’t be the Bills who are on the clock when the season ends and the countdown to the 2015 draft begins. The Bills traded their first-round pick to the Cleveland Browns to move up for Sammy Watkins this year, so they can forget about drafting Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota or Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston. The Bills likely will be under new ownership by the end of the season. Doug Marrone will be looking for work after a thorough housecleaning.

Jerry Jones will finally have had enough after the Cowboys’ fourth straight 8-8 season, and Jason Garrett will be gone.

(AP Photo/Steven Senne)

The Broncos' defense won't be as good as everyone thinks

After their Super Bowl beating, the Denver Broncos were no one’s runner-up when it came to defensive upgrades in free agency.

The Broncos signed perennial Pro Bowl defensive end DeMarcus Ware, cornerback Aqib Talib and safety T.J. Ward. They also have Von Miller back after the star linebacker missed the playoffs last year with a torn ACL.

So long as Peyton Manning keeps the offense humming along, the Broncos might as well just book those January hotel rooms in Arizona, right? Not necessarily.

The 32-year-old Ware posted a career-low six sacks in 2013. He also played in a career-low 13 games as he dealt with quadricep and elbow injuries.

Talib is 28, but has been hurt in each of the last two AFC championship games with the Patriots.

Linebacker Danny Trevathan, who led the Broncos in tackles a season ago, will be out for six to eight weeks with a left knee injury, according to NFL.com.

The Broncos’ big-ticket free-agent signings don’t guarantee a Lombardi Trophy. Ask Dan Snyder or Eagles’ general manager Howie Roseman how free-agent signing sprees work out.

(AP Photo/Jack Dempsey)

Maurice Jones-Drew and Darren McFadden will combine for more than 1,700 yards

Maurice Jones-Drew, signed as a free agent from Jacksonville during the offseason, has run for a total of 1,217 yards over the past two seasons. Darren McFadden has amassed 1,086 yards during that span.

The Raiders’ improved offensive line will breathe new life into their careers.

Left tackle Donald Penn and right guard Austin Howard came in as free agents. They’ve joined left guard Khalif Barnes, center Stefan Wisniewski and right tackle Menelik Watson to form the quintet that has stayed together through every offseason practice, training camp practice and at least the first three preseason games, according to the San Jose Mercury News. The Raiders had eight different starting combinations in 2013, most in the NFL.

There’s a lot to be said for continuity on an offensive line. If the Raiders can maintain that, 29-year-old Jones-Drew and 27-year-old McFadden will see a lot of daylight.

(AP Photo/Tom Lynn)

Terrelle Pryor will help the Seahawks as a role player

Unless your brain tissue is composed entirely of pigskin, you might not remember that the Seahawks acquired quarterback Terrelle Pryor from the Raiders for a seventh-round draft pick in April.

Even if he doesn’t throw a pass, Pryor will find a role with the Seahawks. Seattle’s leading receiver last season, Golden Tate, is in Detroit. The defending champions are banking on Percy Harvin to stay healthy. He’s played in 12 games, including the playoffs, over the past two seasons.

Marshawn Lynch has been more reliable, but he’s carried the ball 901 times over the past three seasons. That’s a lot of wear and tear.

If Harvin suffers another injury or if Lynch starts to break down, the Seahawks will need a little help on offense. A few gimmick plays designed for Pryor won’t solve all their problems, but it won’t hurt.

(AP Photo/Jack Dempsey)

The Rams will finish with a better record than the 49ers

This doesn’t mean that Shaun Hill will lead the Rams to the playoffs. It just means that St. Louis has the defense to get to the vicinity of .500, and the 49ers will disappoint.

The Rams’ plan right now is for Shaun Hill to start in place of Sam Bradford, who tore his ACL in a preseason game against the Browns and is out for the season. Hill is surrounded with promising talent. Running back Zac Stacy came on strong in the second half and went for 973 rushing yards last year. Speedy wide receiver Tavon Austin, the No. 8 overall pick in 2013, caught 40 passes and has the potential to score any time he touches the ball. Kenny Britt, who the Rams signed as a free agent, figures to be their No. 1 receiver. Britt caught 42 passes in each of his first two seasons for a combined 12 touchdowns, then tore his ACL in 2011. The Rams are counting on him to regain his form. He caught three passes for 73 yards through the first three preseason games.

On defense, the Rams were third in the NFL last year in both sacks (53) and yards per rush (3.7). They’ve added rookie Aaron Donald to the front seven. He had a sack and a forced fumble in the Rams’ 33-14 Week 3 preseason win over the Browns, and he didn’t even start.

The 49ers, meanwhile, have some holes to patch in their first season at Levi’s Stadium. They will be missing two vital cogs in their defense for the early part of the season. Linebacker NaVorro Bowman will start the season on the physically-unable-to-perform list, according to Pro Football Talk, and will miss at least the first six games. Even when he returns, he still could have lingering effects from his torn ACL in last year’s NFC championship game.

Another linebacker, Aldon Smith, is facing a suspension of up to eight games after facing weapons and DUI charges earlier this year, according to Pro Football Talk. Smith and Bowman combined for 13.5 sacks last season.

The offense also faces some questions. The 49ers don’t have a true deep threat. Their leader in yards per reception last season was Vernon Davis, a tight end. Anquan Boldin is a possession receiver. He’s a very productive possession receiver with 85 catches last season, but still not a vertical threat. Michael Crabtree averaged 14.9 yards per reception in the five regular-season games he did play in 2013, and 13.5 in the playoffs.

Running back Frank Gore ran for 1,128 yards last season, but he’s entering his Age-31 year. The 49ers must be wary of a decline. Finally, Colin Kaepernick’s playing style exposes him to injury. If he misses any time, the 49ers will have to turn to Blaine Gabbert. There are a number of potential problems on offense which could turn into a perfect storm.

Whatever happens, enough will go wrong for the 49ers that they’ll be looking up at the Rams in the NFC West standings.

(AP Photo/L.G. Patterson)

This will be Jim Harbaugh's last season as 49ers head coach

The 49ers’ subpar season, whether it culminates in a missed playoff berth or a loss in a wild-card game, will be the impetus for the end of Jim Harbaugh’s tenure as 49ers head coach.

Harbaugh is entering the fourth year of his five-year contract. Harbaugh isn’t happy with the $5 million a year he’s getting after leading the 49ers to the Super Bowl in 2012 and the NFC championship game in 2013, according to CBSSports.com. There are no planned negotiations until after the season. By then, Harbaugh will lose leverage and the mercurial coach will get the money he wants elsewhere.

(AP Photo/Gail Burton)

Johnny Manziel will start by Week 6

Brian Hoyer has started four games in his five-year career, so it’s not a question of if but when Johnny Manziel will take over as the Browns’ starting quarterback in 2014.

The schedule, not Browns coach Mike Pettine, decided the Browns’ opening-day starter.

The Browns visit Pittsburgh in Week 1. The Steelers are 17-2 against rookie quarterbacks since Dick LeBeau became their defensive coordinator in 2004, according to ESPN.com. Manziel had about as much a chance of starting on Sept. 7 as he does of leading a prayer group.

It doesn’t get much easier for the Browns in weeks 2 and 3. They host the Saints, ranked fourth in the NFL last season at 305.7 yards allowed per game. The Saints held Andrew Luck and the Colts to 10 points in the first half of their Week 3 preseason game at Indianapolis. Cleveland then hosts the Ravens on Sept. 21.

Then comes the bye in Week 4. If Cleveland starts 0-3, that’s the perfect chance to regroup, name Manziel the starter and keep him from vacationing in Vegas. The Browns are at Tennessee in Week 5. Manziel could make his debut there or in Week 6 when the Browns host the Steelers.

Either way, Manziel would play at home for the first time with the Browns’ most despised rival in town on Oct. 12. That would make for an electric atmosphere and put a little more bite in the Dawg Pound’s bark.

After that is a relatively easy portion of the Browns’ schedule. They go to Jacksonville, then host Oakland and Tampa Bay. The Browns could boost Manziel’s confidence with a win or two during that stretch (AP Photo/David Richard)

Mike Pettine won't be fired after the season

It’s bold to predict any kind of coaching stability in Cleveland, especially after first-year coach Rob Chudzinski was abruptly fired after the final game of the season last year.

Does this mean the Browns will be this year’s rags-to-riches story in the NFL? No. It just means that the Browns will head in the right direction and Johnny Manziel will spread enough pixie dust to give Browns fans hope for the future.

Pettine will match predecessors Pat Shurmur and Eric Mangini, who both had two-year stints as Browns head coach.

(AP Photo/Mark Duncan)

Ben Roethlisberger and Todd Haley will have a classic sideline shouting match

The Steelers have yet to see the playoffs since Todd Haley became offensive coordinator in 2012, so the least they could do is treat their fans to an entertaining sideline confrontation between Haley and Ben Roethlisberger.

Haley is known for such dust-ups during his time as offensive coordinator in Arizona and head coach at Kansas City. So far in Pittsburgh, even though his relationship with Roethlisberger has been frosty, he hasn’t provided much YouTube material.

Pittsburgh’s offense is supposed to shift into high gear this season. Roethlisberger will run more no-huddle behind the same offensive line that allowed him to be sacked just seven times in the last seven games last year.

Le’Veon Bell and LeGarrette Blount, if they can stay out of trouble, figure to give the Steelers a potent thunder-and-lightning combination at running back.

The problem is that no one has taken command of the No. 2 receiver role opposite Antonio Brown. Markus Wheaton, drafted in the third round last year, is the front-runner. He was nothing special through the first three preseason games, catching five passes for 67 yards and a touchdown. Lance Moore, signed from the Saints, is more of a slot receiver. He sat out the Steelers’ Week 3 preseason game and was scheduled to sit out the preseason finale with an undisclosed injury. Fourth-round draft pick Martavis Bryant has potential but isn’t ready to make an impact early in his rookie season. Darrius Heyward-Bey, who the Steelers took a flier on during the offseason, is on the roster bubble.

Without a legitimate second receiver, Brown will be see double and (possibly even) triple coverage, and will come nowhere near the 110 receptions he posted last season.

That would put a wrench in the Steelers’ plans for a high-octane offense. If the frustration comes to a boil it could lead to a pay-per-view spectacle between Haley and Roethlisberger.

(AP Photo/Keith Srakocic)

The Panthers will miss the playoffs

The Carolina Panthers were one of the NFL’s surprise teams in 2013, going from 7-9 to 12-4. However, many teams with an unexpected spike in their win total one year come back down to earth the following year (see 2011 Chiefs, 2013 Redskins and 2013 Vikings).

The Panthers will be the latest team to fall into that pattern.

Sure, Steve Smith is 35, but releasing a leader like him is a mistake for a team on the rise trying to take the next step. Smith caught 836 passes in 13 seasons with the Panthers. He bled teal. The Panthers without Steve Smith is like Van Halen without David Lee Roth.

Not only does this leave a void in terms of intangibles, but Smith led Panthers receivers with 64 receptions last season. Also gone are Brandon LaFell (49 catches) and Ted Ginn (36 catches).

Kelvin Benjamin could be a rookie-of-the-year candidate and free-agent pickup Jerricho Cotchery caught 10 touchdowns last season, but it’s asking a lot of them to duplicate all the productivity that was lost.

It will be even more difficult with a banged-up quarterback throwing the ball to them, especially if that quarterback misses any time.

Cam Newton’s ankle still isn’t 100 percent after surgery in March, and his ribs were fractured in the Panthers’ 30-7 loss to the Patriots in Week 3 of the preseason. The Panthers’ offense didn’t score with Newton on the field in the two preseason games he did play.

To make matters worse, Newton’s blind-side protector, left tackle Jordan Gross, retired after 11 seasons. His replacement, Byron Bell, ranked 136th out of 142 offensive tackles through the first three preseason games, according to Pro Football Focus.

The future is bright in Carolina. But this isn’t the year they make a run at the Lombardi Trophy.

(AP Photo/Stephan Savoia)

The Falcons won't rebound

After three straight playoff seasons, the Falcons’ 4-12 record last year was just a blip on the screen. They’ll be playing in January in 2015, right?

Wrong.

The Falcons’ revival has been one the NFL’s biggest assumptions during the 2014 offseason. But it’s not going to happen, not after the hard knocks the offensive line has absorbed in the preseason.

Left tackle Sam Baker is out for the season with a knee injury, forcing rookie Jake Matthews to Matt Ryan’s blind side. Pro Football Focus ranked Matthews the fifth-worst out of 142 offensive tackles through the first three preseason games.

Backup Mike Johnson is also lost for the year with a foot injury.

Not only that, but the Falcons are still without a playmaker at running back at the present time. Steven Jackson, 31, gained just 543 yards in 12 games last season and is dealing with hamstring problems. Rookie Devonta Freeman isn’t getting many snaps with the first team. He’s stuck on the depth chart behind Jacquizz Rodgers, who’s basically a third-down back, and Antone Smith, who has six career carries. Freeman could become the team’s bell cow in the future. But for now, it could be hard for Atlanta to run the ball which could render them one-dimensional.

A healthy Julio Jones won’t do the Falcons much good if they can’t protect Matt Ryan or move the ball on the ground.

(AP Photo/Patric Schneider)

The NFC North will set a record for total points scored

Lions and Packers and Bears–oh my!

And let’s not forget the Vikings.

Those four teams will combine to score more points than any teams in the same division since the NFL went to four-team divisions in 2002.

The AFC West holds the record with 1,754 points last season. No surprise there, considering the record 606 points the Broncos put up last season.

Second is the NFC North in 2011 with 1,727 points. Aaron Rodgers and Matthew Stafford had a lot to do with that.

Jay Cutler? No so much. But now Cutler has a year under his belt working in Marc Trestman’s offense and the league’s most potent 1-2 wide receiver combination at his disposal. The Bears were the only team with two receivers in the top 10 in receptions last season. Brandon Marshall was fifth with 100 and Alshon Jeffery was 10th with 89.

The Packers have a healthy Randall Cobb joining Jordy Nelson, and Eddie Lacy is poised to become an elite NFL running back.

Golden Tate, who caught 64 passes in Seattle last year, joins Calvin Johnson in Detroit. Johnson led the Lions with 84 receptions last year. Reggie Bush was second with 54 catches, and no other receiver caught 40 balls. The addition of Tate gives Stafford a legitimate receiving tandem.

And the Vikings hired Norv Turner to run their offense. He’ll help make the NFC North the most prolific offensive division in the NFL no matter who his starting quarterback is.

 (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)
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