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5th Annual 32 in 32ish NFL Previews: Atlanta Falcons

As our previews of all 32 NFL teams continue, we turn our attention to the NFC South, beginning the division with the Atlanta Falcons, who came in third place in the division last season .

A season after playing in Super Bowl LI the Falcons finished in third place in the NFC South, but their 10-6 record was good enough to earn one of the conference’s wild cards. The Falcons still have one of the top quarterback-receiver tandems in the league with QB Matt Ryan and WR Julio Jones, and they added to their offensive depth this offseason by taking WR Calvin Ridley with their first pick in the draft. They also signed TE Logan Paulsen to serve as the No. 2 at the position.

The offense ranked eighth in the NFL last season with 5,837 yards and they were 15th with 353 points. Ryan’s 2017 numbers were down significantly from 2016; he threw for 4,095 yards with 20 touchdowns and 12 interceptions. Jones had 88 receptions for 1,444 yards — which was the second most in the league — but just three touchdowns. WR Mohamed Sanu caught 67 balls for 703 yards and five touchdowns in 15 games, and TE Austin Hooper added 49 catches for 526 yards and three touchdowns. RB Devonta Freeman was the team’s top rusher with 196 attempts for 865 yards and seven touchdowns in 14 games, adding 36 receptions for another 317 yards and a touchdown. RB Tevin Coleman played in 15 games, including three starts, and ran the ball 156 times for 628 yards and five touchdowns, with another three scores through the air. The Falcons were pretty good defensively, as well, ranking ninth in yards allowed and eighth in points allowed.

The Falcons’ season begins with the season opener as they visit the Super Bowl LII champion Eagles on the first Thursday night of the season. After that they have three straight home games, beginning with divisional rivals the Panthers and Saints, followed by the Bengals in Week 4. They then head to Pittsburgh to take on the Steelers in Week 5 before hosting the Buccaneers in Week 6. The Falcons host the Giants in Week 7 before their Week 8 bye. Coming out of the off week, they have consecutive road games at the Redskins and Browns. A home date with the Cowboys is on the slate for Week 11, followed by a Week 12 game at the Saints. The Falcons head to Lambeau Field to take on the Packers in Week 14 and host the Cardinals in Week 15. They then end the regular season with back-to-back road games, at the Panthers and Buccaneers.

The NFC South is a tough division, with three of the four teams having made the playoffs a year ago. The Falcons may be the best all-around team in the division, with a strong offense and a defense that was in the top 10 in the league in 2017. If the defense can continue that success into this season, it will help the Falcons stay out of shootouts against teams like the Saints and Falcons. They have a relatively easy schedule on paper, including a game with the Browns. I think the Falcons should be able to get to double-digit wins again this year, with another postseason appearance likely for the team that hopes to return to the Super Bowl after a one-year hiatus.

Source: http://www.atlantafalcons.com, http://www.pro-football-reference.com

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5th Annual 32 in 32ish NFL Previews: Tennessee Titans

As our previews of all 32 NFL teams continue, we conclude our look at the AFC South with the Tennessee Titans, who finished in second place in the division last season.

Despite finishing 9-7 and making the playoffs last season, the Titans made a change at head coach, replacing Mike Mularkey with former Patriots LB Mike Vrabel. As far as player movement, the Titans signed RB Dion Lewis to fill the void left on the depth chart following the release of RB DeMarco Murray. They also signed G Xavier Su’a-Filo and backup QB Blaine Gabbert. They focused on helping their defense in this year’s draft, selecting LBs Rashaan Evans and Harold Landry with their first two picks. They lost WR Eric Decker in free agency.

The offense ranked in the bottom half of the league last season with 5,024 yards and 334 points. QB Marcus Mariota led the way with 3,232 passing yards, 13 touchdowns and 15 interceptions in 15 games, with another five rushing touchdowns on his ledger. TE Delanie Walker led the team with 74 receptions, going for 807 yards and three touchdowns. WR Rishard Matthews added 53 catches for 795 yards and four touchdowns in 14 games  — 11 starts — and rookie WR Corey Davis caught 34 balls for 375 yards in 11 games, including nine starts. RB Derrick Henry ran the ball 176 times for 744 yards and five touchdowns. With the Patriots, Lewis had 180 rushes for 896 yards and six touchdowns, adding 32 receptions for 214 receiving yards and three scores. The defense was around the middle of the league in both yards and points allowed.

The Titans open the season on the road against the Dolphins, then face the Texans in their home opener in Week 2. Another divisional game follows in Week 3 when the Titans visit the Jaguars. The Titans host the defending champion Eagles in Week 4. They continue to alternate home and road games by visiting the Bills in Week 5, hosting the Ravens in Week 6 and heading to Los Angeles to take on the Chargers in Week 7. The Titans’ bye follows that game, with a visit to the Cowboys on deck in Week 9. The Titans host the Patriots in Week 10 and then have two straight divisional games on the road when they take on the Colts and Texans in Weeks 11 and 12, respectively, Their second game against the Jaguars comes in Week 14, and that’s followed with a Week 15 game at the Giants. The Titans conclude the regular season with consecutive home games against the Redskins and Colts.

The Titans find themselves in a potentially tough position in 2018 with a quarterback who threw half as many touchdowns last year as he did in 2016 and a rookie head coach in Vrabel.They’re in a tough division with a Jaguars team that almost played in the Super Bowl last season and teams in the Texans and Colts that should be better this season as they get back stars who were injured for much — or all — of last season. On paper, the Titans appear to be the worst team in the AFC South and with tougher competition expected in the division, they’ll probably finish with a worse record than last year, unless Mariota has a breakout season. The Titans are probably looking at about a 7-9 mark, with a best-case scenario of 8-8.

Source: http://www.titansonline.com, http://www.pro-football-reference.com

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5th Annual 32 in 32ish NFL Previews: Jacksonville Jaguars

Moving on with the AFC South in our continuing previews of all 32 NFL teams over the course of 32 days, today it is the Jacksonville Jaguars, who won the division last season.

Many people predicted a breakout season for the Jaguars last year, and that came true with the Jags not only winning the division and making the playoffs for the first time in a decade, but they made it to the AFC Championship game, losing to the Patriots by just four points. Their defense was what carried them last season, so they focused on adding offense this offseason. Among the signings were TEs Austin Seferian-Jenkins and Niles Paul — with veteran TE Marcedes Lewis being released as a result — and WR Donte Moncrief, who came over from the division-rival Colts. The team traded for QB Cody Kessler from the Browns to serve as Blake Bortles’ backup.

The offense ranked sixth in the NFL last season with 5,855 yards and fifth with 417 points last season. Bortles continued his downward trend last season, throwing for 3,687 yards and 21 touchdowns with 13 interceptions. WR Marqise Lee was his leading receiver, with 56 catches for 702 yards and three touchdowns in 14 games. Rookie WR Keelan Cole started six of his 16 games, totaling 42 receptions for 748 yards and three touchdowns, and WR Allen Hurns had 39 catches for 484 yards and two touchdowns in 10 games, including eight starts. With the Colts, Moncrief had 26 receptions for 391 yards and two scores in 12 games, while Seferian-Jenkins played in 13 games with the Jets, catching 50 balls for 357 yards and three touchdowns. RB Leonard Fournette led the ground game in his rookie season, carrying the ball 268 times for 1,040 yards and nine touchdowns in 13 games; he also had 36 receptions for 302 yards and a touchdown. RB T.J. Yeldon, who is No. 2 on the depth chart following the release of RB Chris Ivory, had 49 rushes in 10 games last season, running for 253 yards and two touchdowns with 30 catches for 224 yards through the air. The defense was second in the league in both yards and points allowed, behind only the Vikings.

The Jaguars open up the defense of their division title with a road game at the Giants in Week 1. Then it’s an early-season AFC Championship rematch when the Patriots come to Jacksonville. The Jaguars remain at home in Weeks 3 and 4, taking on the Titans and Jets, respectively. They hit the road after that, visiting the Chiefs and Cowboys. Their next divisional game comes in Week 7 with a home game against the Texans, followed by another home contest with the Eagles the Week 8 opponent. A bye is on the docket for Week 9, then the Jaguars visit the Colts in Week 10 and host the Steelers in Week 11. They play the Colts again in Week 13, this time at home, and then head to Nashville to take on the Titans. The Jaguars host the Redskins in Week 15 and visit the Dolphins in Week 16 before hosting the Texans in Week 17, which could be an important game for both teams’ postseason hopes.

With CBs A.J. Bouye and Jalen Ramsey leading the way, the Jaguars should have a dominant defense again in 2018, but they still have a subpar quarterback under center. Fournette helped mitigate that last year with a strong rookie season and he’ll have to be the key cog in the offense again this season with Bortles likely remaining a tier below the league’s top quarterbacks. The Jags will probably not have as easy of a road to the division title this season, though, with the Colts and Texans getting back the likes of Andrew Luck, Deshaun Watson, J.J. Watt and Whitney Mercilus. That should make for a tight race at the top of the AFC South, with the Titans also having a chance to compete. I think it’ll be a two-way race between the Jaguars and Texans, though, with those two teams the most likely in the division to be in the range of nine to 10 wins in 2018.

Source: http://www.jaguars.com, http://www.pro-football-reference.com

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5th Annual 32 in 32ish NFL Previews: Indianapolis Colts

Next up in the AFC South as part of our continuing preview of all 32 NFL teams over the course of 32 days leading up to the start of the 2018 season is the Indianapolis Colts, who finished tied for third place last season.

The Colts’ biggest question mark entering the 2018 season is at the most important position on the field. QB Andrew Luck hasn’t thrown a pass in a regular-season game since Week 17 of the 2016 season as he has continued to recover from shoulder surgery he underwent that offseason. He is expected to be ready to play in Week 1 and reportedly looks good in camp, but that doesn’t necessarily mean he’ll do well in an actual game. QB Jacoby Brissett is Luck’s backup and could see a lot of playing time if Luck isn’t 100% or reinjures his shoulder. The team added to its offense this offseason, signing TE Eric Ebron, WR Ryan Grant and RB Christine Michael, who will add depth to a running game that will be without veteran RB Frank Gore, who signed with the Dolphins in free agency.

The Colts finished next-to-last in the NFL with 4,553 yards, and their 263 points ranked 30th in the league. Brissett threw for 3,098 yards and 13 touchdowns, with seven interceptions, in 15 starts last season. TE Jack Doyle led the team with 80 receptions, totaling 690 yards and four touchdowns in 15 games. WR T.Y. Hilton had a team-high 966 yards with four touchdowns on 57 catches. With the Redskins, Grant caught 45 balls for 573 yards and four touchdowns in 16 games — seven starts — and Ebron had 53 receptions for 574 yards and four touchdowns in 16 games, including nine starts, with the Lions. Gore was the team’s leading rusher, but rookie RB Marlon Mack was behind him with 93 carries for 358 yards and three touchdowns. The defense wasn’t much better than the offense, finishing in 30th in the league in both yards and points allowed.

The Colts’ schedule begins with a home game against the Bengals, followed by a road game against the Redskins in Week 2. The Colts stay on the road in Week 3, taking on the defending champion Eagles in Week 3. They have their first divisional game in Week 4, a home contest against the Texans. The Colts then play a couple of games in the Northeast, at the Patriots and Jets in Weeks 5 and 6, respectively. The Colts visit the Raiders in Week 8, followed by their bye in Week 9. The Colts host the Jaguars, Titans and Dolphins the following three weeks. That homestand is followed by back-to-back divisional games on the road, at the Jaguars in Week 13 and the Texans in Week 14. The Colts’ final home games come in Weeks 15 and 16, against the Cowboys and Giants, respectively, before ending the regular season at the Titans.

Luck’s health is obviously the key to success for the Colts. Without him, the offense was among the worst in the league last season. If he can return to form of how he played prior to his injury, that would be huge for the Colts. If not, the team could be looking at winning just a handful of games again this season, especially with the subpar defense. They’re in a winnable division without a team that’s clearly better than the rest, but without their quarterback the Colts wouldn’t be able to compete with their division foes.

Source: http://www.colts.com, http://www.pro-football-reference.com

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5th Annual 32 in 32ish NFL Previews: Houston Texans

We move on to the AFC South in our continuing previews of all 32 NFL teams over the course of 32 days (or so), with the Houston Texans, who came in last place in the division last season.

The Texans’ 4-12 record last season is not representative of the amount of talent on the roster. The defense took a big hit with injuries to DE J.J. Watt and LB Whitney Mercilus, who each played just five games. And QB Deshaun Watson was on pace to set rookie records before he suffered a torn ACL in Week 7 that ended his season. Getting those three players back improves the team — especially on offense, which wasn’t good with Watson out — so they feel like the team’s big offseason acquisitions. The one major free agent the Texans signed was S Tyrann Mathieu, who was released by the Cardinals. They also signed veteran QB Brian Hoyer to serve as Watson’s backup. In terms of losses, the team released veteran LB Brian Cushing.

The Texans ranked in the bottom half of the NFL with 5,120 yards and 338 points in 2017. In the seven games — six starts — Watson played, he threw for 1,699 yards and 19 touchdowns with eight interceptions; he also ran for 269 yards and two touchdowns. WR DeAndre Hopkins had 96 receptions 1,378 yards and 13 touchdowns in 15 games last season, and WR. No one else had more than 36 catches — and that was RB Lamar Miller, who went for 327 yards and three touchdowns on the 36 receptions. In 10 games, WR Will Fuller caught 28 balls for 423 yards and seven touchdowns. Miller was the team’s leading rusher, with 888 yards and three touchdowns on 238 carries. In 10 games, RB D’Onta Foreman ran the ball 78 times for 327 yards and two touchdowns, and RB Alfred Blue had 71 carries for 272 yards and a touchdown in 11 games. With Watt and Mercilus out for most of the season, the defense ranked 20th in yards allowed and last in points allowed.

The Texans face the tough test to begin the season, playing at the Patriots in Week 1. They stay on the road to take on the Titans in Week 2, then get their first home game in Week 3, when the Giants come to town. The Texans visit the Colts in Week 4, then host the Cowboys in a Lone Star battle. Week 7 sees the Texans heading to Jacksonville to take on the Jaguars, then the Dolphins come to Houston in Week 8. After a game in Denver against the Broncos, the Texans have a bye in Week 10. Coming out of the bye, the Texans visit the Redskins. After that, they have three straight home games — against the Titans, Browns and Colts in Weeks 12, 13 and 14, respectively. Following a road game with the Jets, the Texans visit the Super Bowl LII champion Eagles in Week 17. They finish the regular season at home, taking on the Jaguars.

The health of Watson, Watt and Mercilus is going to be the key to how the Texans do this season. If Watson can continue the success he had in the first half of the 2017 season and the defensive guys can play like they have in the past, that will prove the defense that played most of last season, which is already improved by the signing of Mathieu. The Texans have also not had Watt and DE Jadeveon Clowney both healthy at the same time for an extended period. It appears that they will finally get that luxury this season. If things go right for the Texans this season, they should be competitive with the Jaguars for the top spot in the division, and could compete for a wild card if the Jags win the South.

Sources: http://www.houstontexans.com/, http://www.pro-football-reference.com

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MLB All-Star Teams: Altuve leads the pack, Markakis gets his first nod

All the votes have been counted and the 2018 MLB All-Star starters have been announced. Reigning American League MVP Jose Altuve led all players with 4.84 million votes. It is his sixth All-Star selection, including five in a row. The top votegetter in the National League was Braves 1B Freddie Freeman, with more than four million votes cast for him, his third selection. Freeman’s teammate, OF Nick Markakis, is among the notable players selected to start. The veteran will be appearing in his first All-Star Game in his 13th season in the majors.

Here are the full rosters for both leagues, with some analysis:

STARTERS

C Wilson Ramos, Rays: He had a late push to get past the Yankees’ Gary Sanchez, which was the right call by the fans. Ramos was my vote.
1B Jose Abreu, White Sox: He’s one of the few bright spots on one of the worst teams in the majors. I voted for Mitch Moreland of the Red Sox, but you can’t argue with Abreu.
2B Jose Altuve, Astros: He’s the best second baseman in baseball and plays for one of the best teams in the league. No-brainer.
SS Manny Machado, Orioles: He may not be on the Orioles by the end of July, but he’s having a season worthy of being on the All-Star team.
3B Jose Ramirez, Indians: He’s putting up good offensive numbers for a team that is likely going to be a division winner.
DH J.D. Martinez, Red Sox: He is one of the keys to the Red Sox success this season. The only real choice at DH.
OF Mookie Betts, Red Sox; Aaron Judge, Yankees; Mike Trout, Angels: No surprises or arguments to be made with these three selections.

RESERVES

C Salvador Perez, Royals
1B Mitch Moreland, Red Sox
2B Gleyber Torres, Yankees
SS Francisco Lindor, Indians
3B Alex Bregman, Astros
OF Michael Brantley, Indians; Shin-Soo Choo, Rangers; Mitch Haniger, Mariners; George Springer, Astros; Nelson Cruz, Mariners

The American League reserves are outfield-heavy. One of the biggest snubs here in my opinion is Astros DH Evan Gattis, who has been crushing the ball since the end of May. Torres is on the DL and isn’t expected back until after the All-Star Game so will likely be replaced on the roster.

PITCHERS

SP Trevor Bauer, Indians; Jose Berrios, Twins; Gerrit Cole, Astros; J.A. Happ, Blue Jays; Corey Kluber, Indians; Chris Sale, Red Sox; Luis Severino, Yankees; Justin Verlander, Astros
RP Aroldis Chapman, Yankees; Edwin Diaz, Mariners; Joe Jimenez, Tigers; Craig Kimbrel, Red Sox; Blake Treinen, A’s

Bauer was chosen as a replacement for Verlander, who is scheduled to pitch Sunday and will be unavailable for the game. Availability may require other pitching replacements to be made as well. Hopefully that includes Rays SP Blake Snell making the team. He’s having a breakout year and is probably the biggest snub in either league. He’s probably more deserving than Berrios or Happ, but those players are both on the team because their teams each needed a representative. There are a few good candidates to start the game. I would lean toward Cole, but it could also be Kluber or Severino.

STARTERS

C Willson Contreras, Cubs: He surpassed the Giants’ Buster Posey in voting and is having a good year, but I voted for the Marlins’ J.T. Realmuto, who I still think should have gotten the nod here. He’s having a better season than Contreras, but playing for a team with a pretty small fan base obviously hurt Realmuto in the voting.
1B Freddie Freeman, Braves: He got the most votes in the National League, and he is deserving of being selected for the team.
2B Javier Baez, Cubs: Like his teammate, Contreras, he made a late push, overtaking the Braves’ Ozzie Albies in the voting. I voted for the Reds’ Scooter Gennett.
SS Brandon Crawford, Giants: He got my vote, and is the right call at the position.
3B Nolan Arenado, Rockies: He’s having the type of season people have come to expect from him. Another no-brainer pick.
DH Fans don’t vote for a DH in the National League
OF Bryce Harper, Nationals; Matt Kemp, Dodgers; Nick Markakis, Braves: At the start of the season, only Harper would have been expected to be on the team. Kemp and Markakis are surprises, but are both deserving of the honors. All three (eventually) got my vote.

RESERVES

C Buster Posey, Giants; J.T. Realmuto, Marlins
1B Paul Goldschmidt, Diamondbacks; Joey Votto, Reds
2B Ozzie Albies, Braves; Scooter Gennett, Reds
SS Trevor Story, Rockies
3B Eugenio Suarez, Reds
OF Charlie Blackmon, Rockies; Lorenzo Cain, Brewers; Christian Yelich, Brewers

Despite being a last place team, the Reds have three reserves on the team. It’s good to see that Realmuto and Gennett made the team after being snubbed in the voting. Dodgers OF Max Muncy has hit 20 home runs, coming out of nowhere this season, and should be on the team. He is a final vote candidate so still has a chance to make it.

PITCHERS

SP Patrick Corbin, Diamondbacks; Jacob deGrom, Mets; Mike Foltynewicz, Braves; Jon Lester, Cubs; Miles Mikolas, Cardinals; Aaron Nola, Phillies; Max Scherzer, Nationals
RP Sean Doolittle, Nationals; Josh Hader, Brewers; Brad Hand, Padres; Kenley Jansen, Dodgers; Felipe Vazquez, Pirates

Scherzer should get the start for the National League, based on the numbers he’s putting up this season and the fact that the game is in his home park this season. DeGrom is among the best pitchers in the majors this season and gets the Mets’ obligatory spot on the roster.

Tomorrow, I’ll discuss the five final vote candidates in each league and make my selections.

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What does the MLB playoff picture look like on July 4th?

July 4th is typically considered to be the unofficial midway point of the Major League Baseball season, so it’s a good time to take a look at what teams are in a good position to make the playoffs and which teams are likely just playing out the rest of the season before they can begin their offseasons on October 1st.

American League

We’ll begin with the American League, in which five teams may already have the playoff spots clinched. The junior circuit has four teams that are currently on pace to have 100-win seasons and, barring a major second-half collapse, those teams will make it to the playoffs, securing the two AL wild cards in the process. The Red Sox and Yankees hold the top two spots in the AL East, with the Red Sox a game ahead of the Yankees, and the Rays in third place, 15 games out of first. There’s a similarly close race in the AL West, with the Astros holding a half-game lead over the Mariners, with the third-place A’s eight games back of the division lead. With the wild cards likely coming out of the East and West, that means there will only be one playoff team coming out of the Central, and that appears to be the Indians, who are 11 games ahead of the Tigers; the Indians are also the only team in the division with a winning record.

While the five playoff teams seem to already be determined, seeding will be important heading into the postseason. The three division winners will secure themselves spots in the two ALDS, while the wild cards will have to play each other in the one-game playoff for the opportunity to play the No. 1 seed in an ALDS.

al-picks

Looking back at my preseason picks, it looks like I’ll have an 80% success rate on the five AL teams I projected to make it to the postseason, with my only miss being picking the Angels over the Mariners for the second wild card. I had the Red Sox and Astros winning their respective divisions, and I’ll stick with that despite the fact that the Yankees and Mariners could easily end up as division winners.

National League

The playoff picture in the National League is much murkier than in the American League, with seven teams currently within a half-dozen games of the league’s two wild cards. Not only are more teams in the race, but there are more surprising teams that weren’t expected to compete for playoff spots this season.

The biggest surprise is probably in the NL East, where the Nationals were the preseason favorites to win the division for the third straight season but find themselves a game under .500 after losing to the Red Sox on Wednesday, their fifth straight loss and giving them a 2-8 record in their last 10 games. Their subpar season has opened the door for the Phillies and Braves, and those teams are taking advantage of the opportunity for a different team to win the East. Despite losing their last series to the Yankees, the Braves remain atop the division, holding a 1.5-game lead over the Phillies. Most people expected both of those teams to start being competitive in a season or two, but they are ahead of schedule in their rebuilding processes and both look like they could be playing meaningful games in October for the first time in several years. The Nationals are seven games behind Atlanta.

Both the Phillies and Braves are getting production out of young guys, with young SPs Aaron Nola and Zach Eflin both recording sub-3.00 ERAs through the first half of the season for Philadelphia. For the Braves, 2B Ozzie Albies leads the teams in home runs and OF Ronald Acuna looks like he is on his way to earning NL Rookie of the Year honors. But it’s not just the rookies helping the Braves get to first place in the East. 1B Freddie Freeman is putting up good numbers and OF Nick Markakis could have a career year at the age of 34. While those teams are overperforming, its a subpar performance from OF Bryce Harper that is hurting the Nationals. The power is still there, with more than 20 home runs, but he’s hitting just .216 on the season.

The top two teams in the NL Central aren’t surprising, but the order may be. The Brewers hold a one-game lead over the Cubs, with the Cardinals seven games back, in third place. And there are four teams with a realistic chance of winning the NL West. The Diamondbacks currently lead the pack, followed by the Dodgers at 1.5 games back. The Giants are in third, 3.5 games out of first, and the Rockies are five games behind the D-backs.

The Cubs and Phillies currently hold the two wild cards in the NL, with the Dodgers, Giants, Cardinals and Rockies all within five games of the second wild card; the Nationals are 5.5 games back, while the Pirates still have a shot as they sit 7.5 games behind the Phillies.

nl-picks

Taking a look at the mess that is the NL playoff picture, I’m going to say that four of the five teams that currently hold playoff spots will stay there, with the Cardinals overtaking the Phillies for the second wild card. I think the Phillies will struggle a little in the second half and fall out of the wild card. I think the Cardinals have a run in them and will make the postseason. So my five playoff teams as of today are the Braves, Brewers, Diamondbacks, Cubs and Cardinals. So that is two changes from my preseason picks, above, with the Nationals and Dodgers falling out of my postseason projections.

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