02/02/2007 1:00AM

Head, not heart, says bet the Bears


Let's get the disclosures out of the way first.

Yes, I grew up in the Chicago suburbs as a die-hard Bears fans in the 1970's. I watched every game with a sheet of paper to keep a running tab of Walter Payton's yards. My favorite Electric Football team was the Bears (and I still have the players and the board). In 1986, I sang and danced to the "Super Bowl Shuffle" in the role of Gary Fencik at halftime of a college basketball game. I laughed with the "Da Bears" skits on "Saturday Night Live" instead of at them. I was at the Fog Bowl. My website at myspace.com/davetuley is an ode to the Bears. And my second daughter is named Peyton, not after Peyton Manning but after Walter Payton. Just like when my wife and I named our first-born daughter Jordyn after Michael Jordan, we opted for the alternate spelling to feminize the name.

In spite of the above facts, I maintain that after eight years in Las Vegas I'm able to handicap with my head and not my heart. In fact, this season I only picked the Bears once (vs. the Patriots) but I went against them on five different occasions, including the divisional playoff game vs. the Seahawks.

If I'm to be accused of any bias (besides my propensity for picking underdogs), it's that I've continually gone against the Colts, with success during the regular season and without success in their three playoff games.

So, predictably, I'm sticking to my guns and going with the Bears vs. the Colts - not because of any preconceived biases, but because I can make an argument that the Bears are the better overall team.

Bears (+7) vs. Colts

When the Colts have the ball: This is the matchup everyone wants to see, the Colts' (supposedly) high-powered offense against the Bears' (supposedly) strong defense. Frankly, except for the second half vs. the Patriots in the AFC title game, the Colts' offense hasn't been very explosive in the playoffs, and the Bears' defense isn't nearly as dominant as it was earlier in the year, but I think the edge still goes to the Bears on many levels. The Colts' offense

doesn't click as well outdoors on grass as it does indoors on turf, but the Bears play the same physical, smash-mouth defense as teams that have vexed Manning in recent years, the Patriots, Steelers, and Chargers (and no TD's vs. the Ravens' very similar defense three weeks ago). The Bears' pass rush can force Manning into bad decisions. We've all seen him underperform in big games, and let's not forget his six interceptions this postseason - and the Bears have speedy linebackers who can fill passing lanes that Manning is used to seeing open against lesser defenses. Chicago's defensive backs can play bump-and-run or jump the out routes like New England's Asante Samuel did two weeks ago when he returned an interception for a touchdown. And speaking of turnovers, you can't always handicap them, but the Bears are the best at creating turnovers and those can change a game in a hurry.

When the Bears have the ball: The main reason I've gone against the Colts week after week is because they were worst in the NFL at defending the rush, allowing 173 yards per game during the regular season. Granted, they've played better in the playoffs with the return of safety Bob Sanders, but I'm still not drinking the Kool-Aid. I will give them credit for holding the Chiefs' Larry Johnson to slightly more than 2 yards per carry in Sanders's first game back, but the Ravens and the Patriots both averaged better than 4 yards per carry with their running backs but abandoned the ground game too soon. The Bears, with an imposing offensive line and the tandem of Thomas Jones and Cedric Benson (plus the dual incentives of taking pressure off Rex Grossman and also wanting to keep the ball out of Manning's hands), won't be as likely to do that. The Bears will have a lot of success on the ground just like teams did vs. the Colts all year long, and if the Colts totally sell out to stop the run and bring Sanders up close, that just makes the Bears' deep passing game - one thing that Grossman does do well - that much more open.

Special teams: The Bears' Robbie Gould is no slouch, but the Colts now have Adam Vinatieri, so they get the edge there. But that's about it. Chicago's Devin Hester tied an NFL record with six returns for touchdowns this year. During the regular season, the Colts were second-worst in average punt return yardage allowed and third-worst in kickoff coverage. In the AFC title game, the Patriots' Ellis Hobbs averaged 36.7 yards per kickoff return vs. the Colts, and he's no Hester. Big edge here.

Intangibles: The big story of this game is whether Manning finally gets a ring. But you know what? Every player on both teams also wants to be called a Super Bowl champion, so I don't put any stock in that. If you're looking for motivation, the Bears have been answering

critics all season and really used the fact that a lot of people were picking the Saints in the NFC title game as bulletin-board material; now all they've been hearing the past two weeks is Peyton Manning this and Peyton Manning that and how they're underdogs by a touchdown. There is no way this line should be that high, but I will gladly take it. In fact, since I think this line is so out of whack and I make the final score Bears 24, Colts 20, I will go out on a limb and put all of my (mythical bankroll) profits of the NFL season on this play.

PLAY: Bears for 4 units.

Title games: 0-2, including 2-unit loss on the Patriots +3 1/2 vs. the Colts, for net loss of 3.3 units (based on risking 1.1 units to win 1). NFL season record: 53-43-2 for a net profit of 4.4 units.