The Pro Bowl has taken its share of criticism over the years.
Players have a reputation for taking it easy in the game. Defense is often absent. The competitiveness is sometimes nonexistent.
But the NFL has made efforts in recent years to step up the quality of the annual all-star game, and this year's game bears watching for several reasons.
- Money a big motivator
A common talking point from players throughout the week has been how the winning team gets double the take-home pay at the end of the week. Players on the winning side get a nice $55,000 check, and that has both sides ready to turn up the intensity. Even star players like Houston's J.J. Watt are eyeing that prize money going into Sunday. Watt pointed out the difference in the prize money when he spoke to the team after Wednesday's practice, and several players has made it clear that they're going to come ready to play.
- Ravens coaching staffA difference with this year's game is that the Ravens have their coaches in Arizona for the game. Head Coach John Harbaugh and his assistants have relished the chance to work with some of the best players in the game, and the Pro Bowlers have raved about he runs the show. Harbaugh indicated that he may have some tricks up his sleeve for the game Sunday, and he'll certainly look for some creative ways to put on a show for the fans.
3. History in the makingBaltimore fans enjoyed watching linebacker C.J. Mosley all season, and now he's set to become the first rookie in team history to play in the Pro Bowl. Mosley is also one of the most important players on his team, as the rookie is calling plays for the defense. At just 22 years old, Mosley has been one of the leaders throughout the week of practice, and he said going into the weekend that "I'm going to play my game… I'm going to do what I have to do. I want to look good, too."
4. Ravens vs. RavensThe best part of the new Pro Bowl format is that the NFL did away with the traditional AFC vs. NFC teams. Instead, the rosters were determined based on a draft, and that means some Ravens will end up facing off against each other. Elvis Dumervil and Marshal Yanda are on Team Irvin, while Mosley and Justin Forsett will play for Team Carter. Forsett joked that he doesn't want to see big hits from Dumervil, but will see if that handshake agreement holds up once they get on the field.
5. Rare talent on both sidesThe talent on the field during the week of practice and Sunday's game is truly remarkable. Future Hall of Famers line both sides of the field. It's a rare sight to see long-time stars like Drew Brees on the field with up-and-coming league icons like Andrew Luck and J.J. Watt, and watching that kind of talent is something to enjoy.
- Football is fadingPerhaps the most exciting aspect of the game is that it's one of just two more chances to enjoy some football before the offseason. After next week's Super Bowl, which could be painful for some Ravens fans to watch, football will be on a six-month hiatus. Even if the Pro Bowl lacks some intensity compared to a Ravens-Steelers rivalry, it's still one more chance to watch football before people start counting down the days until the next preseason.