The following article is part of The Motley Fool's "Stock Madness 2005," a contest based loosely on the annual NCAA College Basketball Tournament, a.k.a. March Madness. From March 17 to April 4, our writers and analysts will engage in head-to-head competition with each other, advocating and arguing on behalf of 64 stocks we've selected as among the most interesting to Foolish investors. You, dear readers, are the fans and referees -- you'll read these exciting duels and then vote for the stock you think is the better investment.and should therefore move on to the next round of play. The company that survives six "games" will be our tournament champion, and its writer our most valuable "coach."

But, please, make no mistake -- "Stock Madness 2005" is a GAME!

Our writers are doing this for fun. They are enjoying the spirit of competition and the art of debate. They are delighting in the search for positives in the companies they've drawn.and negatives in the companies they're pitted against. They are NOT necessarily recommending these stocks as the ones they believe in above all others. As ever, YOU must decide whether the stocks we're writing about -- winners and losers -- are deserving of your investment dollars.

MetLife (NYSE:MET)
New York , N.Y.
52-week low-high: $32.60-$41.81
Market cap: $29.4 billion

By Nathan Slaughter

While the smokers over there at Altria (NYSE:MO) struggle to catch their breath on the court, a fiscally fit MetLife will barely break a sweat.

With the privatization of Social Security thrust into the political spotlight, we've all been bombarded lately with statistics that reflect the changing demographics of our society. Tens of millions of baby boomers are fast approaching retirement, which, coupled with longer life spans, paints a grim picture for the future of Social Security. That same scenario, though, has MetLife shareholders grinning like bench players who just nailed a game-winning buzzer-beater.

Many of those baby boomers will soon be searching for a place for their retirement assets, and MetLife is a name that 37 million employees (and their family members) already know and trust. The financial services giant offers a broad array of group benefits -- ranging from disability insurance to dental plans to 401(k)s -- to corporate customers of all sizes, including 89 of the Fortune 100 firms. Aside from the lucrative group employee benefit business, MetLife also markets financial and insurance products on an individual basis, building a customer base 13 million strong.

The acquisition of the Travelers life and annuity business from Citigroup (NYSE:C) -- operations that produced $5.2 billion in revenues and more than $900 million in earnings last year -- has made MetLife the nation's undisputed life insurance leader. More importantly, the deal stipulated a 10-year distribution agreement with Citigroup's extensive retail sales channel -- which includes Smith Barney offices and CitiBank branches.

The valuable agreement provides another platform for MetLife to distribute its products and should throw off healthy sales for the next decade. This will only augment a stable business whose earnings and operating income climbed 18% and 24%, respectively, last year -- the third straight record-breaking year for both measures.

MetLife is on a winning streak, but because it's trading at only 10 times this year's earnings, it's not too late to climb aboard the bandwagon.

Fool contributor Nathan Slaughter had a career high of six points in a junior high basketball game. He owns none of the companies mentioned.

Altria (NYSE:MO)
Richmond , Va.
52-week low-high: $44.50-$68.50
Market cap: $133.9 billion

By Mathew Emmert (TMF Gambit)

OK, as I back the purveyor of sin, I concede that I'm not going to come out looking like the good guy in this exchange, but this countdown to the final four is about profits, not politics, and you won't find bigger profits than those doled out by the master of both tobacco and cellophane-wrapped cheese squares, Altria.

Altria, the artist formerly known as Philip Morris, is as venerable as they come in terms of profitability and shareholder returns. Indeed, despite the legal battles raging around the company over the years, the firm has been the single best performing stock in the Standard & Poor's 500 since 1970.

Through its tobacco businesses and its 84% ownership in Kraft Foods (NYSE:KFT), the company generates nearly $9 billion in annual free cash flow (FCF), much of which it crams right back into shareholders' pockets in the form of dividends and share buybacks -- a phenomenon that no doubt results in the firm's current 4.5% dividend yield.

Sure, Big MO has had its run-ins with the law, but the company has actually come out on top in just about every piece of major litigation levied against it. Most recently, a judge removed the teeth from the government's massive $220 billion suit. That leaves just one, or perhaps two, major cases troubling Altria shareholders, and once they've been resolved -- for better or worse -- we're likely to see some major developments that could unlock even more shareholder value.

You see, the company has all but promised to break up the business once certain that its larger court battles are resolved. Therefore, it's likely that Altria shareholders will ultimately be holding separate shares of both Kraft and Philip Morris. Further, I believe the company will actually end up separating Philip Morris International from its domestic tobacco business as well, which would result in stockholders receiving shares in another distinct company, Philip Morris International. The actual spinoff announcement could be just months away, which means shareholders may get a chance to "hold the best and dump the worst," as they choose, very soon.

Considering the stock recently changed hands at under $65 a stub, and I value the firm's individual parts at $74, I'd say current shareholders are facing some smoking hot days ahead. Of course, risks remain, but it's worth the stretch. In short, it may pay to get Met, but I believe it will pay even more to get MO.

Mathew Emmert is a longtime shareholder of Philip Morris, and editor for the Fool's dividend newsletter, Motley Fool Income Investor .

It's hard to argue with the run-up that Altria has enjoyed through the years, but the company enjoyed most of that success when it was still calling itself Philip Morris. The often-maligned tobacco giant's more recent growth rates seem to be pale and sickly. Over the last five years, the top line has only managed to inch up 2.6% annually, while revenues at MetLife have climbed faster than 9% over the same span. Earnings last year trudged 2% higher, while MetLife posted a 40% advance. And $9 billion in free cash flows sounds good -- but they've been falling, not rising.

Finally, Altria's legal entanglements are still forcing costly turnovers; just this morning, the company lost a multimillion-dollar appeal. -- N.S.

Altria's growth rates certainly slowed over the past several years as heavy litigation woes, both legal and illegal competition in the cigarette market, and concern over tobacco grower buyouts pressured margins. However, stock returns are based far more on the value inherent in the shares than on current growth rates, which I imagine is why Altria's stock has nearly doubled the return of the S&P 500 over the past year in the face of the added worries. The company's shares were already overly discounted because of the doom and gloom attitude, and they remain discounted today. Lower growth rates matter little if they result in a 10% impact to the company's valuation but a 40% drop in its stock price -- provided, of course, you buy the shares after the drop. That's why Altria shares will likely outperform shares of MetLife -- which are at best fully valued -- going forward. Multimillion-dollar legal settlements are basically insignificant to Altria, after all -- it's only the multibillion-dollar judgments that deserve attention, given the resources of this company. -- M.E.

Who won? Click here to cast your vote.

The Motley Fool is investors writing for investors.