By Scott Garbarini, NFL Editor, Sports Network
(Sports Network) - A select number of the NFL's best players will be making a trip to Hawaii to participate in this Sunday's AFC-NFC Pro Bowl, though the league's annual all-star game will be lacking some of its star power once again due to a variety of factors.
This will mark the third consecutive year in which the Pro Bowl will be held one week prior to the Super Bowl, thereby removing members of the New England Patriots and New York Giants that were chosen to play in Sunday's exhibition from their conference respective rosters once those teams qualified for the upcoming championship game.
The AFC has been hit particularly hard by the rule, as the Patriots had seven starters and eight players overall invited to Honolulu. That list included such notable names as quarterback Tom Brady, wide receiver Wes Welker and tight end Rob Gronkowski.
In contrast, San Francisco's overtime loss to the Giants last weekend may have turned out to be the NFC's gain, as a conference-best eight 49ers had been picked to the initial squad and just two New York players -- quarterback Eli Manning and defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul -- had made the list.
San Francisco will ultimately send six representatives to the contest, with running back Frank Gore, cornerback Carlos Rogers and safety Dashon Goldson all withdrawing after citing injuries and veteran long snapper Brian Jennings recently added as a need player. Six Green Bay Packers, headlined by quarterback Aaron Rodgers, will also be on the final NFC roster, with head coach Mike McCarthy and his staff directing the team.
Following New England's defections, Baltimore had led the AFC corps with eight selections before four Ravens (running back Ray Rice, defensive tackle Haloti Ngata, outside linebacker Terrell Suggs and safety Ed Reed) all pulled out shortly after the club's loss to the Patriots in this past Sunday's conference championship. That leaves AFC West champion Denver with a team-high six players, although popular quarterback Tim Tebow was not among those named.
Brady's departure elevates Pittsburgh's Ben Roethlisberger to the starting signal-caller's post for the AFC, which will be coached by Houston's Gary Kubiak, with Rogers first to lead the NFC offense before likely giving way to New Orleans record-setter Drew Brees.
The unavailability of both Brady and Manning has also opened up spots for a pair of first-year quarterbacks, Cincinnati's Andy Dalton and Carolina sensation Cam Newton. The two will become the first rookies at the position to make the Pro Bowl since Vince Young during the 2006 season.
This will be the 32nd time in the past 33 years in which the Pro Bowl will be held at Aloha Stadium, with the 2010 edition having taken place at Miami's Sun Life Stadium.
The NFC took a 21-20 lead in the all-time series of the Pro Bowl following a wild 55-41 victory in Honolulu last January, the second-highest scoring total in the game's 41-year history, and has now won three of the last four holdings. The AFC halted a string of two straight losses with a 41-34 verdict in Miami in 2010.
Prior to the AFL-NFL merger, the leagues held separate All-Star games after the season from 1961-69. The NFL had its own Pro Bowl from 1951-60, while the league champion competed against an assembled group of top players between 1938-42.
McCarthy will be leading the NFC team for the second time in his career, having coached the conference to a 42-30 triumph in the 2008 Pro Bowl, while Kubiak has never previously had the honor.
AFC OFFENSE VS. NFC DEFENSE
New England's inclusion in Super Bowl XLVI, combined with the absence of Rice and two injured linemen -- Miami tackle Jake Long and Pittsburgh center Maurkice Pouncey -- will give the first-team AFC offense a far different look than originally comprised, as five Patriots (Brady, Welker, Gronkowski and guards Logan Mankins and Brian Waters) had been tabbed as starters. Roethlisberger (4077 passing yards, 21 TD, 14 INT) will play after an ankle sprain that hobbled him down the stretch of the regular season had time to heal following the Steelers' early playoff ousting, with San Diego's Philip Rivers (4624 passing yards, 27 TD, 20 INT) next in line and Dalton (3398 passing yards, 20 TD, 13 INT) rounding out the conference's quarterback group. The Cincinnati youngster figures to be firing passes in the direction of teammate A.J. Green (65 receptions, 1057 yards, 7 TD), bumped up into a starter's role in place of Welker, as the first rookie quarterback/wide receiver pairing from the same organization to make the Pro Bowl, with Pittsburgh speedster Mike Wallace (72 receptions, 1193 yards, 8 TD) having the same familiarity with Roethlisberger. Jacksonville standout Maurice Jones-Drew (1606 rushing yards, 43 receptions, 11 total TD) will open up in a backfield that won't contain Rice or Houston's Arian Foster, with Denver's Willis McGahee (1199 rushing yards, 12 receptions, 5 total TD) and the Chargers' Ryan Mathews (1091 rushing yards, 6 TD, 50 receptions) filling those slots. The 30-year-old McGahee will be making his second career Pro Bowl appearance and first since 2007.
The selected NFC starting defense won't be undergoing a whole lot of changes, with Rogers the lone honoree to bow out of the contest. The 49ers will still have a presence on the unit, however, with disruptive tackle Justin Smith (58 tackles, 7.5 sacks) and inside linebacker Patrick Willis (97 tackles, 2 sacks, 1 INT) each receiving well-deserved citations for their contributions to one of the NFL's stingiest defenses in 2011. Even without Pierre-Paul, the conference won't be bereft of top-notch pass rushers, as Minnesota end Jared Allen (66 tackles, 1 INT) led the league with 22 sacks and Dallas outside linebacker DeMarcus Ware (58 tackles, 19.5 sacks) and Philadelphia end Jason Babin (40 tackles, 18 sacks) finished second and third, respectively, in that category. Rogers will be replaced in the opening lineup by Chicago's Charles Tillman (99 tackles, 1 sack, 3 INT) in the veteran corner's first trip to Honolulu, while 35-year-old Charles Woodson (74 tackles, 2 sacks, 7 INT) garnered his eighth career Pro Bowl nod on the opposite side and joins outside linebacker and Green Bay teammate Clay Matthews (50 tackles, 6 sacks, 3 INT) as a starter.
NFC OFFENSE VS. AFC DEFENSE
Rodgers (4643 passing yards, 45 TD, 6 INT) will the first up out of an absolutely loaded NFC crop of quarterbacks after setting an new NFL single-year standard with a 122.5 passer rating. The prolific Brees (5476 passing yards, 46 TD, 14 INT), meanwhile, shattered Dan Marino's 27-year-old mark for passing yards in his banner 2011 campaign, while the dynamic Newton (4051 passing yards, 21 TD, 17 INT) threw for more yards than any rookie in league history. That stellar trio won't have the luxury of working with perhaps the best receiver in the game today, however, with Detroit superstar Calvin Johnson declining to attend because of a sore Achilles tendon, though the combo of Arizona's Larry Fitzgerald (80 receptions, 1411 yards, 8 TD) -- the 2009 Pro Bowl MVP -- and Carolina veteran Steve Smith (79 receptions, 1394 yards, 7 TD) alongside New Orleans tight end and first-time selection Jimmy Graham (99 receptions, 1310 yards, 11 TD) ensures there will be more than enough elite targets to go around. The backfield also possesses two quality pass-catchers in Philadelphia first-timer LeSean McCoy (1309 rushing yards, 48 receptions, 20 total TD) and Chicago's Matt Forte (997 rushing yards, 52 receptions, 4 total TD), slated to participate despite missing the final four weeks of the regular season with a sprained knee. Graham is one of three Saints chosen as starters, along with the stout guard tandem of Carl Nicks and Jahri Evans.
The decision of Baltimore's terrific trio of Ngata, Suggs and Reed to all skip this event further depletes an AFC defense that also lost a pair of key Patriots -- tackle Vince Wilfork and injured end Andre Carter -- to the front line. The starting crew will now have a strong Denver look to it, with end Elvis Dumervil (42 tackles, 9.5 sacks) and decorated safety Brian Dawkins (51 tackles, 3 sacks) joining dazzling rookie linebacker Von Miller (64 tackles, 11.5 sacks) and seasoned cornerback Champ Bailey (39 tackles, 2 INT, 10 PD) in the opening lineup following the roster shuffle. Bailey was named to the Pro Bowl for the 11th time, the most by a corner in league history, while the 38- year-old Dawkins has now earned nine such laurels over the course of his distinguished career. Ravens inside linebacker Ray Lewis (95 tackles, 2 sacks, 1 INT) has both men beat, as the two-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year will be part of the AFC team for the 13th time. He'll start alongside Miller and Kansas City pass rusher Tamba Hali (66 tackles), whose 12 sacks trailed only Suggs' 14 for tops in the conference this season.
There will be a distinct Bay Area flavor here, with the kicker, punter and long snapper from both sides all coming from either the Raiders or 49ers. Oakland's Shane Lechler will be competing for the AFC for a fifth consecutive year after producing a 50.8 gross punting average, behind only San Francisco's Andy Lee (50.9 ypg) for the league lead, and Lee's 44.0 net average set a new NFL record that had been held by Lechler and enabled the eighth-year pro to make his third career Pro Bowl. Teammate David Akers also etched his name in the record books by registering new league highs for field goals made (44) and attempted (52) in a season, with that excellent performance landing the ex-Philadelphia Eagle a spot as the NFC's kicker for a third straight year and sixth time overall. The Raiders' Sebastian Janikowski will be headed to Honolulu for the first time, however, after the burly kicker connected on 31-of-35 three-point tries and an impressive 7-of-10 from beyond 50 yards. Jennings and Oakland's Jon Condo were added to the rosters as long snappers this week, with both specialists receiving their second career Pro Bowl nods.
The rest of the special teams selections will contain predominantly newcomers, highlighted by electrifying Arizona rookie Patrick Peterson's choice as the NFC's return man. The Cardinals cornerback tied an NFL record with four punt return scores while averaging 15.9 yards per runback. Pittsburgh's Antonio Brown gets the call for the AFC after averaging a solid 27.3 yards on kickoffs and 10.9 on punts, and the second-year wideout should also see time on offense after compiling over 1,100 receiving yards during the regular season. Chicago's Corey Graham and Jacksonville's Montell Owens, who'll be taking the spot of New England's Matthew Slater, were honored as special-teams coverage players and are each regarded among the league's best at that aspect.
While it's near impossible to gauge how the players will approach what's essentially a meaningless exhibition and a hard-earned vacation, recent history does indicate that the game is almost certain to contain a massive amount of scoring, with the winning team having put up 38 points or more in nine of the last 12 Pro Bowls. The NFC has had the upper hand as of late and will also be coming in with less of a roster purge than the AFC, which had eight players withdraw due to injury in addition to having to replace eight Patriots. With the two best quarterbacks in this contest (Rodgers and Brees) also on that side, not to mention a multi-talented threat in Newton who should be eager to showcase his unique skills against some of the league's best on a national stage, and the blue team appears to be the better bet.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: NFC 45, AFC 34