01/01/2004 1:00AM

Golfing buddies snag top football prize


LAS VEGAS - Anyone who tries to handicap pro football games - especially in this era of parity - knows how unpredictable they can be. To have a successful season, you have to know the teams and be able to analyze the matchups while taking into account the all-important point spread.

But even if you're on top of your game, there's still an element of luck. A little divine intervention helps, too.

Peter Fischer, Paul Stutzman, and Byron LaBow are three Las Vegas senior citizens who are golfing buddies at the Las Vegas Country Club. They also love football and annually split a $1,500 entry into the SuperContest at the Las Vegas Hilton right across the street from the country club. The trio just concluded a season in which their entry, named "Peter and Paul," went 54-30-1 to beat out a record field of 346 and win the first prize of $207,600.

"The entry went in under Byron's name," Fischer said. "When he was up there signing us up, they asked him what our team wanted to be called. He didn't know so he just said 'Peter and Paul.' Maybe it was a religious thing. I don't know if there's a Saint Byron."

Another fateful decision was ultimately more important to the team's success. They had to figure out how they would come up with their five plays a week.

"We used to do it by committee, but that didn't do anything," Fischer said. When asked what was their previous best finish, Fischer paused before chuckling and saying, "Maybe 100th."

"This year, we decided that I would go first and pick the games until I had a losing week, and then Paul would go and then Byron. Well, I went nine straight weeks before I had a losing record. When I said it was their turn, they both told me, 'Don't be silly. Just keep doing what you're doing.' "

Fischer said his system is pretty simple. He has a power number for each team, from best to worst, adds in three points for home-field advantage, and compares it to the point spread.

"Some games come out right around the point spread or a one-point difference, but if it's bigger and it sorta makes sense, then I go with that play," he said.

"Peter and Paul" was among the SuperContest leaders all season long and held a one-game lead heading into last weekend. Fischer watched the final day's action at home while Stutzman and LaBow were both out of town for the holidays. When their last play of the year, Vikings -7 1/2 vs. the Cardinals, fell apart in the closing minutes to give them a rare 2-3 losing record for the week, they figured they had lost the contest. But Fischer had a chart with all the other contenders and told his partners via telephone that they would still win the whole thing if the Ravens failed to cover 7 1/2 in the Sunday night finale. Fischer said he was a nervous wreck watching the game, but the Ravens never got clear of the number and only won 13-10 in overtime.

So what is the threesome going to do with their winnings?

"Paul joked that we should take out ads in the Racing Form and GamingToday next year and sell our picks," Fischer said, "but I don't want to get lynched if we lose."

Besides, Fischer said he has more immediate priorities instead of starting a handicapping service like other past winners have done.

"I have children and grandchildren with their hands out," he said.

For the record, Fischer said he will be playing a four-team parlay this weekend with his picks in the wild-card games: Titans, Panthers, Packers, and Broncos.

On Saturday, I agree with him on the Titans, but I'm going with the underdog Cowboys in the other matchup.

Titans (-1) at Ravens

The Titans were regarded by many as the best team in the league for much of the season, at least until the Patriots kept winning and winning. The overall strength of the team was really showcased when they won convincingly in games with backup quarterbacks Billy Volek and Neil O'Donnell. A sweep at the hands of the Colts relegated them to having to play this weekend, but with Steve McNair back in the lineup after resting last week, the Titans should be ready to make a Super Bowl run. McNair's precision passes on third downs can keep drives alive, and his feet allow him to buy more time against the Ravens' pass rush. When the Ravens have the ball, the league's top rushing offense (167 yards per game) will be going against the top rushing defense (81 yards per game). I'll go with the defense, which will also put more pressure on Baltimore QB Anthony Wright, who is playing in his first playoff game.

PLAY: Titans for 1 unit.

Cowboys (+3) at Panthers

Defense will also play a crucial role in this matchup, as with any playoff game. These teams met six weeks ago, with the Cowboys winning 24-20 as their No. 1 defense shut down running back Stephen Davis and held the Panthers to 244 total yards. That's not likely to change. Meanwhile, Quincy Carter threw for 254 yards and two touchdowns against the Panthers' vulnerable pass defense in the previous meeting and should do the same. Points will be at a premium, and the Cowboys seem to match up slightly better on both sides of the ball. Throw in the playoff coaching edge of Dallas's Bill Parcells over Carolina's John Fox, and the underdog looks like the way to go.

PLAY: Cowboys for 1 unit.

Last week: 3-3 for a net loss of 0.3 units (based on laying 1.1 units to win 1).
NFL regular-season record: 55-35 (61 percent) with five pushes for a net profit of 16.5 units