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New Pro Bowl format produces deliciously awkward matchups

OAHU, Hawaii -- Cam Newton said he thinks he'll have a little edge come Sunday at Aloha Stadium. It's not like Ron Rivera will rush the passer, right?

Welcome to the new Pro Bowl, with no conference affiliations, two teams drafted fantasy-style by Hall of Famers Deion Sanders and Jerry Rice -- and a whole lot of extra intrigue.

Newton, the Panthers' quarterback, was drafted by Team Sanders; Rivera, the Panthers' head coach, is directing Team Rice. And so, after the first day of Pro Bowl practice at Hickam Air Force Base on Thursday, the politicking started.

Alex Smith (Team Rice) said he hopes fellow Chief Tamba Hali (Team Sanders) won't hit him hard. Bengals linebacker Vontaze Burfict (Team Rice) already promised he won't hit his real-life teammate A.J. Green (Team Sanders): "If A.J. catches one over the middle, I'll let him go."

And Chargers safety Eric Weddle (Team Sanders) said no, he won't blitz Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers (Team Rice), "but I will pick him off. Happily."

The first-ever Pro Bowl Draft, which started Tuesday and finished with a fancy green room and oceanside TV set Wednesday, "brings another element," Eagles running back LeSean McCoy said. Smith said he's pumped to play alongside a bunch of guys he rarely sees, and Falcons legend Tony Gonzalez, who's been named to 14 Pro Bowl teams, said all this talk of the game's demise is greatly exaggerated.

"I hope they never ever switch it off this island or stop playing it," Gonzalez said. "This doesn't ever stop being fun."

Thursday's practice certainly was. Sanders was an especially vocal team captain, barking suggestions that his squad's coach, the Colts' Chuck Pagano, good-naturedly took. Players wore shorts and a variety of color-coordinated hats. And at one point, as Steelers wide receiver Antonio Brown lined up next to the Eagles' DeSean Jackson and opposite Team Sanders teammates/cornerbacks Darrelle Revis and Patrick Peterson, there was enough laughing to break up the whole play.

(For the record, Peterson, the Cardinals star, said if he's matched up against Arizona teammate and Team Rice wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald, "I will definitely tackle him. I'm not going to take his knee out, but I have to tackle him.")

Light as these days are, Terrell Suggs warned against believing there isn't a level of competitiveness, too. Guys have pride, he said, and when among the best, "you still want to be the best."

The Browns' Joe Haden said he was burned he wasn't the first cornerback drafted, while Peterson, who was the first corner taken, said he did think it mattered that the captain who was a cornerback took him.

"I knew 'Prime' was going to come and get me," he said.

Chiefs running back Jamaal Charles, a player captain for Team Sanders, said he definitely lobbied some: "I fought for my offensive tackle, Branden Albert" -- and that he definitely got some heat from Chiefs linebacker Justin Houston (Team Rice) for not fighting enough for him.

"You can't get mad at me. I'm just a captain. I'm a scouting director, not the actual GM," Charles said, as a little boy dressed in a Bills jersey told him he was his favorite player. Charles thanked the little boy and then said, "Justin's just mad because we have the better team."

Brown wouldn't say which of his quarterbacks -- Newton, Nick Foles or Andrew Luck -- threw the best ball, but he did say he was watching how the other receivers on his team went about their drills. "This is a chance," he said, "to pick up things from the best."

In the end, one of the all-time bests, Gonzalez, said if his career couldn't end at the Super Bowl, this game is the next best option.

"Look around. We're in Hawaii," he said. "How cool is this?"

Follow Aditi Kinkhabwala on Twitter @AKinkhabwala.

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