New time and place, but this Pro Bowl looked much like any other

MIAMI -- The Pro Bowl is the Pro Bowl.

Playing it here, rather than Honolulu, does not make it any less compelling than it has been the last 30 years in Hawaii. Many would probably argue that, because it doesn't count and because the players don't necessarily play full throttle, it never was and never will be all that compelling, regardless of the location.

But location wasn't an issue Sunday night. Neither was the fact that, for the first time, the game -- won by the AFC, 41-34 -- was played a week before the Super Bowl.

The Pro Bowl is the Pro Bowl.

And on Sunday night, it looked pretty much like what it has been since 1980, the first year it was held in Honolulu. You still had those typical Pro Bowl moments, such as when NFC defensive lineman Justin Smith knocked AFC offensive tackle Joe Thomas on his back and then actually stopped to help him up while AFC quarterback Matt Schaub threw the first of his two touchdown passes. And when AFC defensive end Shaun Ellis just gave up on a pass rush as NFC quarterback Aaron Rodgers connected with Steve Smith on a touchdown throw.

If anything, having the NFL's annual all-star game in the same stadium where the Super Bowl will be held seemed to actually amp things up a little.

Attendance at Sun Life Stadium, which was decked out for Super Bowl XLIV, was 70,697. That's 20,739 more than were on hand at Aloha Stadium last year. Tailgaters, who arrived several hours before kickoff, could be seen everywhere. There was a festive atmosphere and, if anything, even a slightly higher degree of anticipation than one sensed before the Hawaiian Pro Bowls.

Think of Sunday night's game as a dry run for when the Indianapolis Colts take on the New Orleans Saints in a week. OK, it wasn't totally dry, thanks to intermittent rain. For the record, it rains in Honolulu, too.

Neither the weather, which was South Florida-like for much of the week, nor the fact that the game wasn't played in a tropical paradise, seemed to dampen the spirits of the participants.

"Man, to just look around and see all of these guys' faces, all of these famous guys, is just special," AFC and Tennessee Titans running back Chris Johnson said of his first Pro Bowl appearance. "It means a lot to just get to be around them and to have fun."

"It was amazing," said Schaub, also appearing in his first Pro Bowl and voted the game's Most Valuable Player. "It was a great week, getting to know all these guys and having a good time. It was a great week."

So much has been made about the fact that none of the members of the Super Bowl teams played in the Pro Bowl, denying it the star power that the Colts' Peyton Manning and the Saints' Drew Brees would have provided. Manning, Brees, and other Pro Bowl selections from the Colts and Saints were introduced before the game. Cheap cameo appearances, you say? Perhaps. But keep in mind, the starting Pro Bowl quarterbacks only make brief appearances in the game, anyway. One year, Troy Aikman actually left Aloha Stadium in the third quarter to catch a flight back to the mainland.

Of course, you'd better get used to seeing Super Bowl players absent from the all-star game, because even though the Pro Bowl is returning to Honolulu for the next two years, it is expected to continue to be staged the week before the Super Bowl.

The fact many players -- including the top three quarterbacks on the AFC squad -- pulled out of this year's Pro Bowl because of injuries (and that questions have been raised about the legitimacy of some of the injuries) certainly did nothing to make the game any more attractive.

But a significant number of players, especially of the marquee variety, pulled out of Pro Bowls in Hawaii. The suspicion was that mega-wealthy stars such as Brett Favre and Tom Brady simply had no desire to take such a long flight to play in such a meaningless game, even if every player is guaranteed a minimum of $22,500 (the payout for each player on the losing team; members of the winning squad get $45,000 apiece).

"I tell you what, traveling is a little easier," NFC and Minnesota Vikings defensive end Jared Allen said.

Even with Manning and Brees watching from the sidelines, this year's game had a fair amount of star power in the three NFC quarterbacks: Rodgers, Donovan McNabb, and Tony Romo. It had some entertaining plays. It had plenty of back-and-forth action. And most of the players here seemed to enjoy themselves, including those from Florida and the immediate area.

"It's a dream come true; it was a goal the whole offseason," said NFC and Carolina Panthers linebacker Jon Beason. "Even though I took the scenic route (as a last-minute replacement for Patrick Willis, who was forced to pull out because of a knee injury), I still made it and I am glad to be here for all of my friends, family, and fans."

NFC and San Francisco 49ers running back Frank Gore, who is from Miami, bought 50 tickets for family and friends. He joked that he wound up playing the game for free, but it was worth it.

"I walk out of the tunnel and I hear, 'Frank! Frank!'" Gore said. "I like that."

There was a lot to like about this Pro Bowl, but no more -- and certainly no less -- than the ones in Hawaii.

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