POSTED: 9:19 p.m. HST, Jan 28, 2012
LAST UPDATED: 7:55 a.m. HST, Jan 29, 2012
Photo Gallerty: Pro Bowl Practice
Tony Gonzalez, Ray Lewis and Champ Bailey know what to expect. The new faces at the Pro Bowl aren't so sure, and are curious how intense they should play in Sunday's all-star game.
"I've never been in a Pro Bowl before, so I don't know what the tempo is going to be like," San Diego Chargers running back Ryan Mathews said. "So it's going to be fun to get out there and see how it goes."
Six rookies are among the 36 first-timers, including quarterbacks Cam Newton of the Carolina Panthers and Andy Dalton of the Cincinnati Bengals, who are replacing Super Bowl quarterbacks Eli Manning and Tom Brady.
Their selection makes this Pro Bowl the first that will feature two rookie quarterbacks.
"This is like the height of being an NFL player — being an all-star and having the opportunity to wear the red, white and blue — just having that jersey," said Newton, the No. 1 overall pick in last year's draft. "Only a few people can say, 'I've made it to the NFL,' but fewer number can say they've made it here."
In a game known to highlight offense, the NFC will feature two of the game's most prolific quarterbacks.
Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers will start for the NFC and will be backed up by New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees. Rodgers passed for 4,463 yards with 45 touchdowns and just six interceptions. His quarterback rating of 122.5 set an NFL record. Brees, meanwhile, threw for 5,476 yards, breaking Dan Marino's single-season record.
The NFC also features Philadelphia running back LeSean McCoy and receivers Larry Fitzgerald (Arizona), Steve Smith (Carolina) and Greg Jennings (Green Bay).
Houston defensive end Antonio Smith acknowledges the NFC has a lot of great players on offense, but isn't too worried.
"We got so many weapons. We got so many Super Bowls. We got Hall of Fame players on our team. So I think we'll be all right," Smith said.
Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger will start for the AFC, with San Diego's Philip Rivers and Dalton backing him up.
"I think any quarterback will tell you that we wish we were getting ready to play in a game a week from now, but it's always an honor to come," said Rivers, who this season joined Brees and Peyton Manning as the only quarterbacks to pass for 4,000 yards in four consecutive seasons.
The players wrapped up a week of "workouts" on Saturday.
"The practices have been great," Cardinals rookie cornerback Patrick Peterson said. "It's definitely the most laid-back practices I've ever been involved in."
The brief practices have been as grueling and intense as a poolside, Hawaiian lomilomi massage. The players, some wearing sunglasses, often sweat more after practice — signing autographs for the fans.
"If you break a sweat during practice in Hawaii, there's a rule you've got to be sent home by the NFL," said Packers cornerback Charles Woodson, who is making his eighth Pro Bowl in his 14th season.
After practice, the players usually spend their days golfing, fishing, shopping or lounging on the beach with their families. In a season that began with a bitter labor dispute is ending in paradise for these players.
"It's more than what I thought it would be. It's amazing. It's truly amazing," said Smith, making his first trip.
The players are hoping this won't be the final game in Hawaii. NFL and state officials are negotiating a deal to keep the game in the islands. Many said they wouldn't play if it were elsewhere.
Bengals rookie receiver A.J. Green said he spent time learning from the players he grew up admiring. He doesn't know what to expect Sunday.
"A lot of guys aren't trying to get hurt. I think it's going to be up tempo, but not too crazy," he said.
Packers coach Mike McCarthy, who is leading the NFC, said his game plan was simple with such a loaded team. "Our goal is to have 11 on the field," he said.
McCarthy said the game is all about the players, who earned this trip with their work during the season.
"I don't think anybody's too worried about how many touches they get or where the ball is going to go," he said.
Maybe with the exception of Jennings, who believes he has the inside track on the throws with his coaches calling plays and Rodgers as the signal caller.
"The other (receivers) already know, when I'm in the game, 85 is going to get the ball," Jennings said.
This year's winners will receive a record $50,000 each, up $5,000 from last year, with the losing players earning $25,000.
"When that fourth quarter rolls around and there's a little bit of money on the line, I think you'll see the tempo step up. We'll all be ready for it," Packers linebacker Clay Matthews said.
Chargers tight end Antonio Gates said he expects to play hard.
"I only know one way to prepare for a game. I don't know how to go half-speed," he said. "This is still a game. Guys still got on pads and coming out to compete."
Besides the money, conference bragging rights are on the line.
"It's still a pride thing — AFC vs. NFC," Gates said. "We feel like we are the tougher division and they feel the same."
Rivers said the money is important, but isn't the main motivator for these competitors.
"Even if we were playing for nothing, when it comes down to it, they're still keeping score," he said.