NFL Pro Bowl Preview - AFC vs. NFC
By Scott Garbarini, NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - The AFC-NFC Pro Bowl will be returning to a familiar locale for 2011, but not even the desirable destination of Honolulu seems to be enough to entice many of the NFL's stars from participating in the league's annual all-star game.
After holding last year's edition in Miami as part of the festivities for Super Bowl week, the Pro Bowl will be back at Aloha Stadium, which had hosted the contest 30 consecutive times between 1980-2009. The NFL will stick with another change instituted last season, however, with the game again taking place a week prior to the Super Bowl after previously being held on the Sunday that followed the championship match.
As a result, representatives of the two combatants of Super Bowl XLV will not take part in the Pro Bowl, meaning five Green Bay players selected to the initial NFC roster and three Pittsburgh members tabbed to the AFC squad won't be heading to Hawaii.
They're not alone, as nine other AFC choices and seven additional NFC picks have pulled out of this year's matchup citing injuries, further watering down a game that's been criticized in the past for its lack of passion.
Also for the second straight year, coaches of the top-seeded losers of the Divisional Round of the playoffs will be guiding their respective conferences. The AFC team will be led by New England's Bill Belichick, with Atlanta's Mike Smith directing the NFC troops.
Belichick won't have his quarterback on hand, however, with expected AFC starter Tom Brady forced out after opting for surgery to repair a stress fracture in his right foot last week. The leading MVP candidate will be replaced in the opening lineup by San Diego gunslinger Philip Rivers.
The NFC offense will be piloted by Philadelphia's Michael Vick, who'll be making his first Pro Bowl appearance since coming back from his well-documented two-year incarceration for involvement in an illegal dog-fighting operation.
The two conferences have each won 20 times over the previous 40 holdings of the Pro Bowl, which has taken place annually since the 1970 season. The AFC halted a two-game losing streak in the series with a 41-34 victory in Miami last January, with Houston quarterback Matt Schaub earning MVP honors after completing 13-of-17 passes for 189 yards and two touchdowns.
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.
This will be Belichick's third time coaching the AFC team. He steered the conference to a 31-28 win in the 2007 Pro Bowl and also helped the AFC post a 23-10 decision in 1999, while then serving as the New York Jets defensive coordinator and filling in for former boss Bill Parcells. This will be Smith's first time coaching in the Pro Bowl.
Belichick and Smith have faced one another once before in the regular season, when the Patriots topped the Falcons by a 26-10 count in New England on Sept. 27, 2009.
AFC OFFENSE VS. NFC DEFENSE
Brady isn't the only playmaker among the AFC ranks that won't be present for Sunday's festivities, as Jacksonville running back Maurice-Jones Drew, Houston wide receiver Andre Johnson and San Diego tight end Antonio Gates have also withdrawn due to injuries. Texans surprise Arian Foster (1616 rushing yards, 66 receptions, 18 total) will take Jones-Drew's place in the starting backfield, with Broncos revelation Brandon Lloyd (77 receptions, 1448 yards, 11 TD) working alongside Colts great Reggie Wayne (111 receptions, 1355 yards, 6 TD) at wide receiver and the Jaguars' Marcedes Lewis (58 receptions, 10 TD) subbing for Gates. The offense will begin in the hands of Rivers (4710 passing yards, 30 TD, 13 INT), who edged out AFC teammate Peyton Manning (4700 passing yards, 33 TD, 17 INT) for this year's passing yardage title, with the Indianapolis superstar and Kansas City's Matt Cassel (3116 passing yards, 27 TD, 7 INT) also slated to take snaps. Manning will be taking part in his 11th career Pro Bowl, while Cassel garnered his first-ever nod. Foster will be backed up by two of the fastest rushers in the league in Chiefs speedster Jamaal Charles (1467 rushing yards, 45 receptions, 8 total TD) and Tennessee burner Chris Johnson (1364 rushing yards, 44 receptions, 12 total TD).
The AFC stars will get to showcase their talents against an NFC defense that's been depleted by both injuries and the Packers' rise to the conference title. A trio of Green Bay players -- linebacker Clay Matthews, cornerback Charles Woodson and free safety Nick Collins -- had been elected as starters, while Detroit tackle and rookie sensation Ndamukong Suh, San Francisco middle linebacker Patrick Willis and Philadelphia corner Asante Samuel are three other projected regulars that won't be on the field come Sunday. The defense still will feature three outstanding pass rushers in the end duo of Atlanta's John Abraham (40 tackles, 13 sacks, 1 INT) and Chicago's Julius Peppers (54 tackles, 8 sacks, 2 INT) as well as Dallas outside linebacker DeMarcus Ware (66 tackles), the NFL's leader with 15 1/2 sacks in 2010. Ware will be starting on the NFC side for the fifth straight year, while both Peppers and Arizona strong safety Adrian Wilson (88 tackles, 2 sacks, 2 INT) will be getting their third consecutive assignments.
NFC OFFENSE VS. AFC DEFENSE
Vick's (3018 passing yards, 21 TD, 6 INT) reward for his sensational comeback campaign is a first trip to Honolulu since 2006 and an unprecedented slot as a starter. Atlanta standout Matt Ryan (3705 passing yards, 28 TD, 9 INT) and Saints star Drew Brees (4620 passing yards, 33 TD, 22 INT) will also get their shots running the NFC offense, and the quarterbacks will have a strong collection of pass-catchers, headlined by Falcons wideout Roddy White (115 receptions, 1389 yards, 10 TD), Detroit uber-talent Calvin Johnson (77 receptions, 1120 yards, 12 TD) and ultra-reliable Cowboys tight end Jason Witten (94 receptions, 1002 yards, 9 TD), to work with. Atlanta bruiser Michael Turner (1371 rushing yards, 12 TD), one of a game-high nine Falcons on the NFC roster, will be the first running back in, and he'll be spelled by a pair of Pro Bowl vets in Minnesota's Adrian Peterson (1298 rushing yards, 36 receptions, 13 total TD) and St. Louis' Steven Jackson (1241 rushing yards, 6 TD, 46 receptions). Peterson was the MVP of the NFC's win in the 2008 Pro Bowl, with Arizona wideout Larry Fitzgerald (90 receptions, 1137 yards, 6 TD) claiming that distinction the following year.
The AFC defense will have to make do without a pair of pivotal Steelers that had been chosen as starters, strong safety Troy Polamalu and outside linebacker James Harrison, while Baltimore free safety Ed Reed (personal reasons) and Indianapolis end Dwight Freeney (injury) were also removed from the opening lineup. The Ravens will still be well represented, however, with the iconic Ray Lewis (139 tackles, 2 sacks, 2 INT) ready to play in his 12th career Pro Bowl as the conference's middle linebacker and tackle Haloti Ngata (63 tackles, 5.5 sacks) and outside linebacker Terrell Suggs (68 tackles, 11 sacks) also seizing spots in the starting lineup. The AFC defense will field a pair of promising rookies as well, with Kansas City's Eric Berry (92 tackles, 2 sacks, 4 INT) replacing Polamalu at strong safety and New England's Devin McCourty (82 tackles, 7 INT, 17 PD) playing behind the excellent cornerback combo of Oakland's Nnamdi Asomugha (19 tackles) and the New York Jets' Darrelle Revis (32 tackles, 10 PD).
The AFC's special teams corps will have one familiar face, with Raiders punter Shane Lechler named to the Pro Bowl for a fourth straight year after topping the conference with a 47.0 average. The rest of the group is comprised of newcomers, with Baltimore kicker Billy Cundiff (26-29 FG, 40 touchbacks), Tennessee rookie returner Marc Mariani (25.5 kick return avg., 1 TD, 12.2 punt return avg., 1 TD) and Jacksonville special-teamer Montell Owens all making the team for the first time.
The NFC will have no shortage of dangerous return men for Sunday's test, as Chicago difference-maker Devin Hester led the NFL with a 17.1 average and scored three touchdowns taking back punts and Atlanta's Eric Weems placed third in the league in kickoff returns (27.5 avg., 1 TD). Philadelphia kicker David Akers received a fifth career citation after converting 32-of-38 field goal attempts, while Dallas punter Mat McBriar is going to Hawaii for a second time after pacing the NFL with a 47.9 average.
It's never easy to attempt to pick a winner here, but do expect this traditionally defensively-deficient contest to be high scoring, as the victor has eclipsed 30 points in 10 of the past 11 Pro Bowls. Since the AFC fared a little better in interconference play during the regular season and the NFC has endured a sizeable amount of defensive defections, we'll go with the red team to come out on top for a second straight year.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: AFC 34, NFC 27
01/26 15:00:29 ET