Want a sure thing looking forward to the second half of this season? A no-risk gamble as secure as a government-issued savings bond? Something you can take to the bank? Then try the 8-0 Indianapolis Colts, who, despite five second-half matchups with playoff-caliber opponents, have all but stamped their pass for the Super Bowl derby.
In a league full of uncertainties, with plenty of questions that still must be answered before the playoff dance card is completed, the Colts are the measuring stick for no-brainers: Peyton Manning will be masterful. Edgerrin James will rush for 1,500 to 1,600 yards. Marvin Harrison will execute his double-move routes, and the fade with poetic flow. Dwight Freeney will rush the quarterback with unwavering relentlessness. Coach Tony Dungy won't break a sweat.
But not every franchise has the luxury of an unblemished record and, for sure, not every playoff wannabe can rely on the degree of consistency that Indianapolis seems to elicit nearly every week from its galaxy of superstars. There are teams on the fringe of the '05 playoff hunt that will need clutch performances from key players to qualify for a berth in the postseason. And there are players at virtually every position who must deliver for their teams to spend January at work instead of on some Caribbean golf course.
A look at a few of those players:
• QBs Byron Leftwich (Jacksonville) and Chris Simms (Tampa Bay): The stumble against St. Louis two weeks ago notwithstanding, the Jaguars face a fairly easy schedule over the second half. Just one of their remaining eight games, the Dec. 11 rematch with the Colts at Alltel Stadium, is against a team with a winning record. But the Jaguars, and Leftwich in particular, too often play down to the level of opponents. On paper, Jacksonville appears a lock for the postseason, but Leftwich has to keep authoring enough meaningful plays every week on the field.
The Bucs look to be in the early stages of a meltdown, having lost three of their last four outings, and Simms must take control of a sputtering offense. It might be an advantage if coach Jon Gruden took a few more shots down the field. Runners-up: Kyle Orton, Chicago, and Drew Bledsoe, Dallas.
• RB Julius Jones (Dallas): Word is that the second-year veteran, sidelined the last three contests by a high ankle sprain, will return for Monday night's game at Philadelphia. In his absence, the staff found that the rookie tandem of Marion Barber and Tyson Thompson can contribute, and Bill Parcells will get the former of those two some touches in the second half of the year. But the slashing Jones, whose durability has come into question, remains the centerpiece, at least when healthy, of Dallas' ground-oriented offense. The NFC East race, because of the struggles of the Eagles, is more competitive than it's been in years, and every game looms large. The Cowboys need Jones to be on the field, not in the whirlpool, for the big second-half games. Runners-up: Corey Dillon, New England; Larry Johnson and/or Priest Holmes, Kansas City; and Steven Jackson, St. Louis.
• WR Keary Colbert (Carolina): It's hard to blame the Panthers' second-year receiver for the fact his partner, Steve Smith, is having such a monster season. And it's hard to blame quarterback Jake Delhomme for having such tunnel vision for Smith, given his favorite target is seemingly always open. But at some point, the odds say, some defense is going to divine a coverage scheme to make Smith less available. "I mean, even I understand you can't catch 10 passes every week," Smith said Sunday. There's going to come a time when Delhomme is going to have to look to Colbert and or perhaps the venerable Ricky Proehl in a crucial situation. Runners-up: Justin Gage, Chicago; Deion Branch, New England; and Ernest Wilford, Jacksonville.
• DEs Julius Peppers and Mike Rucker (Carolina): Sentiment is growing that Carolina might be the NFC's best team. But as impressive as the Panthers have been in winning five straight games, Carolina still must face Atlanta twice in the second half of the year, and keeping Michael Vick in check has been a longtime bugaboo. Unlike Tampa Bay, which seems to have a tried-and-true blueprint for defending the mercurial Vick, the Panthers have yet to figure out a scheme for keeping him in the pocket and forcing him to win a game with his arm. Peppers is showing indications, as evidenced by two sacks as part of a huge win at Tampa Bay Sunday, of becoming dominant again, as he was in stretches last year. Runners-up: Simeon Rice, Tampa Bay; Jared Allen, Kansas City; and Bryce Fisher, Seattle.
• DT John Thornton (Cincinnati): If the Bengals' defense has a flaw, it is the unit's inability to stop the run. Part of that problem is that Cincinnati is playing with a rookie middle linebacker, Odell Thurman, who is sometimes out of position, despite his status as a legitimate rookie of the year candidate. Thornton has the ability to be not only active and disruptive, but also an anchor versus the run, and the Bengals need him to clog things up inside. Runners-up: Gerard Warren, Denver, and William Joseph, New York Giants.
• CB Ike Taylor (Pittsburgh): The third-year veteran is emerging as a terrific, young, two-way defender, solid in coverage and strong in run support. But the Steelers are allowing an alarmingly high rate of third-down conversions, and Taylor and the rest of his mates in the Pittsburgh secondary have to start getting themselves off the field. Runner-up: Curtis DeLoatch, New York Giants.
Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com. To check out Len's chat archive, click here.