01/12/2007 1:00AM

Experience usually pays off


The theme of the NFL divisional playoff games this weekend is youth vs. experience.

That's oversimplifying things, but the fact remains that the four teams that won the wild-card games last weekend (Colts, Eagles, Seahawks, and Patriots) have considerably more recent playoff experience on their rosters than the teams that they now have to travel to face (Ravens, Saints, Bears, and Chargers).

Will experience prevail?

As always, handicappers have to look at these on a game-to-game basis to see what other factors apply. That being said, I'll start with the last game of the weekend, as it's the clearest example of youth vs. experience and the game in which I see the most betting value.

Patriots (+5) at Chargers

The Chargers have emerged as the most talented and consistent team this season and are now favored to win the Super Bowl. LaDainian Tomlinson is a deserving MVP and quarterback Philip Rivers has stepped right in to give the Chargers a balanced offensive attack to go with a very strong defense. The Patriots have quietly gone about their business (and this is a very professional, businesslike team) and they have playoff experience oozing from their pores, having won three of the last five Super Bowls.

The play of Rivers will go a long way toward deciding the outcome of this game, and there's no getting past the fact that he is a first-year starter seeing his first playoff action. He has answered every challenge, but you just know New England coach Bill Belichick's defense will have some surprises he hasn't seen yet. No one is better at game-planning.

One player to keep an eye on is New England's underrated linebacker Roosevelt Colvin, who plays a kind of rover. He can come on the blitz or drop into pass coverage. Back to Belichick, it's a fact that he and quarterback Tom Brady are a combined 11-1 in playoff games, with that one loss coming last January in Denver, and it's basically my feeling that the refs beat them as much as the Broncos. The offense, which can win with Brady through the air or on the ground with the combo of Corey Dillon and Laurence Maroney, will be able to move the ball on the Chargers as well.

Basically, if it's a blowout, I see the Patriots being the team to pull away. And if it's a close game, New England's experience will come in handy. Another factor is the one guy on the San Diego sideline who has the most experience: head coach Marty Schottenheimer (he is 5-12 in postseason play). Even though it appears he's gotten past his "Martyball" phase, it's easy to see him reverting back to his conservative ways if the pressure is on. And I think the pressure will be on, both for him and Rivers.

PLAY: Patriots for 2 units.

Colts at Ravens (-4)

The Colts have more recent playoff experienced of the two, with the Ravens having not made the playoffs the past two years and being a surprise team this season. But not so fast. Most of the Colts' playoff experiences have been negative, as Peyton Manning & Co. have yet to make it to the Super Bowl, and the Ravens still have a lot of players around from their Super Bowl title six years ago and have added quarterback Steve McNair, who led the Titans and performed well on the big stage, to solidify the offense.

I haven't played a favorite in the past month - since a reader wrote that I couldn't pick a favorite to save my life - but I'm maintaining my stand against the Colts. They shut down the Chiefs' running game last week, but I don't think that after allowing 173 rushing yards per game during the regular season that they can do it two weeks in a row. That should make McNair's play-action passes even more effective. The other thing playing in Baltimore's favor is it has the physical, mano-a-mano defense that most frustrates Manning and his receivers.

PLAY: Ravens for 1 unit.

Eagles at Saints (o/u 48)

I admit this point spread on this game (the Saints -5) has me in a quandary. As usual, my first thought is to take the experienced playoff team with the points, and I have the Saints at 200-1 to win the Super Bowl, so the prudent thing for me to do is to hedge with the Eagles +5. That's certainly no reason, however, to recommend a play. So I look to the total. Playoff football tends to be more conservative and last week led to three of the four wild-card games going under (don't remind me that my one total play last week was the under in the only game that went over, the Jets vs. Patriots). The total of 49 seems way too high. The Eagles have gone under in their last three games, and the New Orleans offense might be rusty after sitting most of its starters in the Week 17 game vs. the Panthers and the bye last week.

PLAY: Under for 1 unit.

Seahawks (+8 1/2) at Bears

I know the Bears should have the home-field advantage. I know the Bears beat the Seahawks 37-6 back on Oct. 1. I know the Seahawks were lucky to beat the Cowboys last week. But I also know the Seahawks are a year removed from playing in the Super Bowl, and the Bears have not been as good as their 13-3 record indicates and have been inconsistent, especially on offense with quarterback Rex Grossman, who is 0-1 in playoff games (last year in a home loss to a more-experienced Carolina team). The Bears' defense also wasn't as dominant down the stretch as it was earlier in the season, and I think Shaun Alexander will get his share of yards (he missed that earlier meeting) and that will slow down the pass rush and allow Matt Hasselbeck to find his receivers. I'm a lifelong Bears fan, but I have to take the points.

PLAY: Seahawks for 1 unit.

Last week: 2-2, including a loss on the Chiefs +7 as a 2-unit play, for a net loss of 1.3 units (based on risking 1.1 units to win 1). NFL season record: 51-39-2, including 1-2 on 2-unit plays, for a net profit of 6.9 units.

Tuley the Tout's NFL Selections

Saturday, January 13
Indianapolis at Baltimore (-4)Baltimore
Philadelphia at New Orleans (-5)Philadelphia
Sunday, January 14
Seattle at Chicago (-8.5)Seattle
New England at San Diego (-5)NEW ENGLAND
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