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BOB RYAN

Only the inexperienced would pick against Patriots

With his first playoff start looming, Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers needs to pass a tough test: A Bill Belichick defense. (CHRIS PARK/ASSOCIATED PRESS)

SAN DIEGO -- This really is a lot like a year ago, you know.

The Patriots were not all that dazzling during the regular season, losing convincingly at home to the likes of San Diego and Indianapolis. But they came into the playoffs feeling better, and when they dismissed the Jaguars (28-3) in the first round, was there not a feeling of at least mild euphoria that our plucky lads were primed and ready to put on a proper defense of their title? That's the way I recall it.

And then? And then Denver 27, New England 13.

So what's different?

For starters, one key word is different. Substituting "San Diego" for "Denver" immediately makes people feel better. Patriots fans do not want any part of the Broncos. Champ Bailey will be watching today's game from his rec room.

I'm picking the Patriots to win today. I wouldn't bet my life, house, car, Sox season tickets, or even my golf clubs on it, but I wouldn't do that if they were playing the Raiders at home. I'm just not built that way.

Picking against the Chargers seems borderline ridiculous. They were clearly the best two-way team in the AFC this season. Do you realize they are only 6 points from being 16-0, and that the two losses were at Baltimore in Week 4 and at Kansas City in Week 7? Since then, they have won 10 straight. They will be playing in Qualcomm Stadium, where they averaged a chilling 31 points a game. They led the league in points, point differential, rushing touchdowns, and sacks. They have the league MVP in LaDainian Tomlinson. They have an excellent defense led by a marauding superstar in linebacker Shawne "Lights Out" Merriman, who has pretty much sworn to take Tom Brady's head back home with him after the game. They are, I am here to tell you, loose, relaxed, and supremely confident.

But I do love the Patriots in this one.

What happened last week in Foxborough should not be taken for granted. It should have sent a message to the rest of the NFL that the Patriots were going to be a formidable obstacle for anyone in the playoffs. It was a far more meaningful triumph than the wild-card victory over the Jaguars last year because this Jets team is far superior to that Jacksonville team, a fact that will become more evident next season when the Jets win 12 games and battle the Patriots for the AFC East title right down to the last day.

Whatever bad or disappointing stuff that went on during a 12-4 season that really didn't feel the way a 12-4 season should (the second-best Patriots record ever) is irrelevant now. What matters is the Patriots last week demonstrated a two-way efficiency that bodes very well for subsequent postseason play.

I like the Patriots because, with or without Rodney Harrison, they can play some serious defense. I would like any team whose first line of defense consists of Vince Wilfork, Ty Warren, and Richard Seymour. If they don't constitute the best such trio in the NFL then, as Dizzy Dean would say, it's among 'em. And I think you would agree from what we saw last week that Bill Belichick hasn't lost anything off the ol' mental fastball.

This brings us to a very obvious reason anyone should be wary of the Patriots in this one. Philip Rivers had a very nice year, orchestrating a very potent offense. But let's see what 25-year-old Philip Rivers can do against Professor Belichick and his class in his very first playoff game.

It would have been nice for young Mr. Rivers had he been forced to play wild-card weekend, just to get his feet wet in this postseason stuff. But would it have made all that much difference against the Patriots? Probably not.

There really is something to the idea that young quarterbacks generally have a rough time when they enter the postseason. It's just different.

Courtesy of the fine folks at Cold Hard Football Facts (a must-read website for pigskin folk), we learn that John Elway, Dan Marino, and Troy Aikman all lost their first playoff games, each being younger than 25 at the time. We further learn that of the last 13 quarterbacks making their playoff debut, 12 have gone down to defeat. The only exception was Ben Roethlisberger, who beat the Jets, 20-17, in 2004.

And we all know what happened to him when he went up against the Patriots that year, don't we? (41-27, Patriots, in case you've forgotten.)

I mean, is there any comparison between the quarterbacks in this particular game? One is a talented rookie with zero playoff experience. The other is the preeminent Big Game quarterback of our time, hungry for his fourth Super Bowl ring.

I'm not minimizing the effectiveness of the San Diego defense. Brady probably will make the acquaintance of Mr. Merriman and his esteemed cohort Shaun "The Other Guy" Phillips (11.5 sacks) from time to time. But it stands to reason Brady will be able to adjust and figure out what to do against the Chargers far better than Rivers will be able to adjust and figure out what to do against the Patriots.

I like the Patriots because I would like any NFL team that is 7-1 on the road. Oh, sure, the stadium is guaranteed to be loud. There will be communication problems. Well, whoop-de-do. Like the Patriots have never encountered loud, hostile crowds before. I can almost hear them saying, "Bring it on."

I like the Patriots because I think they really like themselves. This team survived the ongoing wide receiver crisis and the almost inevitable defensive backfield crisis (their continued ability to deal with this is a phenomenon that is the talk of the league), and here they are.

I like the Patriots because, unlike last year, when there was no real running game because Corey Dillon was battered and spent, they have a formidable two-headed running monster in Dillon and Laurence Maroney (a combined 1,557 yards, each averaging over 4 yards per carry).

I think they're playing with house money now, although they never would admit that. The pressure will be on the Chargers, as it always is for the top-seeded team. And if the game is tight, will there be a "Martyball" factor? Add it all up, and I just like 'em.

And if Rodney were playing, I might have even bet the golf clubs.

Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist. His e-mail address is ryan@globe.com.

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