Indianapolis: Peyton Manning's value and the excellence of this organization shines through more each year. Injuries knock down player after player at the skill positions. Dallas Clark goes down, Jacob Tamme comes in. And Peyton just keeps churning out the yards and the team manages a game well enough to win. At 6-3, they're in first place again and likely to stay there.
Tennessee: They're what the Colts would be without Manning--solid, steady, well-coached and always lurking. But lacking Manning, there's just not the big-play capacity to get over the hop. Is it inconsistent to both like the move for Randy Moss, yet still think it won't work? Tennessee's got a chance to win this division and needed to try something mid-year, but I'm skeptical if Moss will really go all-out.
Jacksonville: The classic under-the-radar team this year. Not until they beat Houston on a desperation pass last week did they move up to 5-4. David Garrard is finding his rhythm and they need to be consistent with running the ball behind Maurice Jones-Drew. Do that, and get some improvement from the defense and they could steal a playoff berth. More likely, they're an AFC victim, left home in this tough conference.
Houston: The loss last week to Jacksonville put them seriously behind the eight-ball for getting into the playoffs. At 4-5, the Texans just aren't playing any defense and without a strong run down the stretch, it means Gary Kubiak will be out and there will be a coaching vacancy in Houston.
Atlanta: I'm very impressed with the way the Falcons have come together and there's no facet of the game they don't do at least reasonably well. The Matt Ryan-to-Roddy White combo is their meal ticket, but they run the ball, they have other targets, they have a good defensive front and vets in the secondary. At 7-2, they have the top record in the NFC and have already won at New Orleans.
New Orleans: After a shaky start, the Saints seem to be finding their stride and at 6-3, still have a shot to catch the Falcons and look to have the inside track to the playoffs. They do need to get healthy at running back and corners Jabari Greer and Terry Porter have to step up with stronger second halves.
Tampa Bay: They're a tribute to consistency. There's not a single impressive win here in their 6-3 mark, but nor is there a bad loss--the Bucs have only been beaten by Pittsburgh, New Orleans and Atlanta--and in today's NFL consistency matters most. But to get to the playoffs, they likely have to edge at least one of the three contenders in this division and that means finding a way to beat them. Whether they can take the next step is what the second half is all about.
Carolina: With Dallas now playing football again under Jason Garrett, Carolina is the new poster-boy of teams who have mailed it in. They're 1-8 and John Fox is on the way out after a nice run on Tobacco Road.
Image from zennie2005.blogspot.com
Dan Flaherty is the editor of the Sports Notebook Family, published through the Real Clear Sports Blog Network, offering daily commentary in college football ,game analysis in the NFL. and coverage of college basketball. He is the author of The Last New Year's, a book that revisits the historic high points of college football's New Year's Day bowl games.